Very distinctly, I remember examining his gait, and the way he walked out of the studios out into the hall and then out of the building to have his cigarette on the steps and brood. He was older than me by two years, and had been a senior for two years at a private high school called Hamanasset, in Milford or Gilford of Branford, Connecticut, not far from New Haven. (People told me that James had been arrested for robbing a liquor store and hadn’t done well in conventional classrooms; Hamanasset had open classrooms and the added glitter of having the highest teenage suicide rate in the state. James had survived all that, which I was happy about, and worked on installations in his studio every afternoon, which is where I met him; although I had heard about him a year before and had seen him walking around downtown many times before that). He wore his corduroys, loose, and an untucked rugby shirt most days when he worked in his studio — he was the only one of us that had his own studio — and when he walked out of the building to smoke. His eyes were miraculous, vividly blue and enhanced by many hours of acid, mushrooms and peyote, giving them a vague, spacey, hugely attractive glazing. He had long wavy hair, longer than mine, and blond, so I grew mine longer to be like James, or have James like me, or just simply to be James, or something. (James was one of the rare figures in my life that I wanted to consume, whole, as an idea, as a superstar wedged into a brief afternoon slot between math class and dinner at my parent’s house, a matinee idol who spoke to me and told me he liked my drawings and that the only artists worth thinking about were Andy Warhol and Robert Smithson, who I hadn’t heard of before until James).
Bars (an aside)
There used to be, for a brief period in the late 1970s, and the first year or two of the 1980s, a small corner bar called Ron’s Place. On the exterior it had rough-hewn boards and stucco in a vaguely Tudor style that had been roughly painted in a deep red color, and on the inside everything was painted matte black with a small matte black stage at one end of the room, with mirrored and metallic fragments scattered around the space. Shards of broke mirror were glued over the bar spelling out the name RON. Ron’s Place played punk music and bands played there on the weekends, and New Haven’s small punk scene gathered there every night to drink whiskey or beer. (Sarah Rubenstein was a regular, and Bettina followed her, and then I followed Bettina; I would also follow Bettina into New York, to Canal Street to buy pieces of iron and bits of steel from the hardware stores that she would fasten into necklaces and earrings and pins for her torn sweaters and large collection of red shirts and jackets, that she would wear to Ron’s). A block or two down the street from Ron’s Place, on the other side of the street, on the opposite corner, was Partners, a bar housed in a low concrete building with long horizontal slits as windows, with a discreet entrance around the corner. Inside there were two levels of moderately slick surfaces, carpeted platforms, two cocktail bars and one dance floor and a few video monitors suspended from the ceiling. Small rotating disco balls hovered over the dance floor in a grid and were highlighted by directed spotlights with pink, purple and red gels, illuminating the room at irregular intervals. There were strobe lights which struck the dance floor isolating individual people dancing, holding their glasses of vodka tonics and wearing tight clean t-shirts or open shirts.
I also remember distinctly the deepness of James’s voice, when he would speak to me, or when I would overhear him talking to someone else, either in the studios or in the park that most of us went to after school. When he would speak to me directly, the deepness was overwhelming, dizzying, and it was usually combined with a clap on the back or his arm around my shoulder, which rendered me physically paralyzed and mentally dazed; but nevertheless I generally managed to go through with my well-rehearsed motions, gestures and affectations which I had borrowed along the way, most recently from James himself. (My own voice, happily, had dropped a few years before, but prior to that, just in case it wouldn’t on its own, I had practiced lowering my voice by will, talking to myself in the deepest tones I could manage when I was by myself and out of earshot of others.) James would occasionally lecture me on manners of art, artists and my work, and then describe to me in intricate detail the newest structural changes in his ongoing series of string and light installations, housed in his small studio at the end of the hall, where I would hover nearby to study both the details of the installations, and the details of James; he seemed authentically artistic, at eighteen, and would perform local artistic vandalisms like splattering paint all over Athena’s parents’ living room when they were out of town, drunk out of his mind, while Athena cried in the corner.) I was generally quiet around James. One day, James asked me to join him and some of his friends (some I knew, some I didn’t) to a screening of Andy Warhol films at Yale, which I had never seen before.
Lipstick (an aside)
There used to be, for a brief period sometime during the 1970s, in New Haven, a large Oldenburg sculpture called Lipstick (it could have been the very early 1970s, or maybe even the very late 1960s because I associate it in some nebulous way the with the Vietnam War, but I’m not sure why, and it does remain anchored in my brain as a particularly early encounter with Pop art.) It was huge, as I remember, and red, or a reddish orange, with an angled lipstick top, and it stood in the courtyard between Woolsey Hall and the Noguchi sculpture pit. It blocked the usual traffic route through the courtyard, but only slightly, and cast a long dark lipstick-shaped shadow across the gray flagstones toward the Noguchi sculpture. (Years later, when I was planning my contributions to Sonsbeek 93 and was perusing the Sonsbeek 71 catalogue, I was struck by the grainy black-and-white photographs of the many Minimalist sculptures plopped down on the lawns of Sonsbeek Park, each in its own grove or on its own slope: Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Tony Smith, and then the Sculpture in the form of a trowel, stuck in the ground, by Claes Oldenburg, stuck in the middle of them. In the corner of the photograph of the Oldenburg trowel you can see the black heavy base of either the Judd or the Smith — they were somewhat similar in design so it is difficult to tell which — creeping in on the territory of the Pop camp, and of course vice versa. This trowel piece and its proximity to the black monoliths, and their relative proximity to the Robert Smithson work, Broken Circle, produced in Emmen, all collectively overwhelmed and dazzled me with their grainy photographic presence in the 1971 catalogue, and prompted me to lift, borrow and reference the presence into a contribution to the 1993 show).
After the Warhol film, Heat, James and his friends talked about going out, either to Ron’s Place or Partner’s, or the Gypsy Bar, or someplace, I don’t remember. (I remember standing on the sidewalk with them while they talked, spacing out, thinking about Joe Dallesandro and Sylvia Miles, about his beautiful ass and her cavernous house with the vaulted ceiling that had belonged to a “mad silent star”; and the swimming pool outside where Joe takes a swim, with his long straight blond hair that prompts their perfect dialogue:
Silvia: “What does it look like when you take that thing off?”
Joe: “Wanna see my hair?” — he takes it out of the ponytail — “That’s my hair, that’s my strength.”
Silvia: “It’s incredible!”
Joe: “I don’t know, today people aren’t into hair anymore.”
Silvia: “Well maybe not everybody’s hair.”
They kiss for a long time and topple over onto the couch, and eventually into her bed.
Joe Dallesandro’s hair was smooth and clean and it combed back slickly as opposed to mine, which like James’s was full and wavy and couldn’t be tamed and domesticated as perfectly as Joe’s. Later that year I cut my hair short, or sort of short, shorter than it had been in a long time — but only after James had cut his short, before moving off to New York to live on St. Mark’s Place with his girlfriend and study art. I saw him after that in New York, but the strange captivation he had held over me seemed to dissolve almost completely in the early to mid 1980s. (There’s a particular photo of James that I took, or my friend Athena took, and I took it from her, and have since lost. It shows James from behind, before his hair was cut, walking with his loose corduroys and a rugby shirt partially tucked in, his face looking back slightly, looking like Jim Morrison or someone who has taken on Jim Morrison’s look. For a while I used that photograph as the source for a series of drawings a few years later in New York, which were born out of frustration, nostalgia and desire for James, or to think about James again, or to try to think about trying to be James again, or something.)
(This text is published in Tom Burr’s Anthology: Writings 1991–2015, FRAC-Champagne-Ardenne and Sternberg Press, 2015, pp. 67–71.)
Tom Burr (b. 1963, US) is an artist living in New York.