In the wake of the upcoming release of my first book, The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart (published by OUTPOST19), friends and colleagues, some more concerned than others, have asked me, "Is it a tell-all?" In lieu of a straight answer, I have opted to refer to an Emily Dickinson quote: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant."
If you're familiar with Gertrude Stein's writings, you will recognize that my book owes its title to Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein wrote it in 1932, after having suffered years of ridicule for her avant-garde, "cubist" writing style. In its first edition, as per Stein's request, her name did not appear on the cover. The reader was not to discover the identity of the book's true author until the very end, where it says:
"About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it."
This paragraph suggests that The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a fictionalized account of Toklas's perception of Stein. By boldly revealing her conceit in the final paragraph, Stein effectively satirized the genre of conventional autobiography. Instead of providing the reader with an intimate portrait of a life, she served up an anti-biography, exploiting the genre while still making fun of it. The unemotional, descriptive and declarative tone of the book has such a strong focus on exteriorities that it sometimes teeters on the edge of farce, as with Stein's incessant repetition of her own full name throughout the book: "Gertrude Stein was delighted with..."; "Gertrude Stein used to get furious..."; "Gertrude Stein worked a great deal..."
It was Stein's clever and oftentimes hillarious way of toying with identity, mocking earnestness, and blurring reality and fiction that drew me to the book in the first place and ultimately convinced me that it would make the perfect template for my own memoir. You see, I have a thing for mischief in art.
I grew up living in embassies. My father was a Belgian diplomat, and family life was dominated by form and decorum. The oftentimes-surreal ambiguity between representation and reality was my first introduction to the theatre of the absurd. Art became my refuge and, not surprisingly, I soon found myself drawn to the works of artists who played with these issues -- notably René Magritte and Marcel Broodthaers. The latter had, after many years as a struggling poet, acerbically declared in 1964 that he would henceforth forego sincerity altogether and "invent something insincere." He set out to create "objects" he could sell as art and over time became one of the beacons of institutional critique.
I began to practice my own brand of institutional critique back in the early 1990s, when I was a graduate student at Hunter College, and I paid a high price for it: the faculty, completely out of sync with current art practices and somewhat unnerved by my status of in-house-provocateur, denounced my use of appropriation as "plagiarism" and expelled me. Ten years later, I created The Homeless Museum of Art (HOMU), a pastiche of the contemporary art museum, a world I knew very well by then from my years of experience as a museum educator. For the next ten years, I insouciantly rattled the cage of the art establishment. I started a guerrilla initiative that targeted inflated museum admission prices, presented a parody of the contemporary art museum in my apartment, and wrote numerous open letters to museum directors such as Thomas Krens of the Guggenheim and Glenn Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art, addressing them as colleagues and casually reprimanding them for the way they were commercializing the institutions they led.
Eventually, I took my act to the streets and turned it into a series of intimate dialogue sessions with strangers. I no longer cared to change the art world, but wanted to prevent it from changing me. It was perfectly clear to me that, notwithstanding the Village Voice's recent claim that "Uptown Money [was] Killing Downtown Art", in fact, "downtown" had long ceased to exist as a viable cultural entity. Art and money were, by now, so closely linked that anyone who participated in the art world was implicated. Of course, Marcel Duchamp knew this a long time ago and declared as early as 1961 that "the great artist of tomorrow will go underground."
Then, in 2010, a chance encounter prompted me to consider writing my memoirs. It was at a Christmas party at performance artist Penny Arcade's home on the Lower East Side. Her neighbor, K.C. Rowling, a painter in his late eighties, began talking of the past - his own, undocumented life in the margins with his lover, who had just passed away. Witnessing how the stories poured out of this frail, gentle man affected me greatly. I realized I did not want to reach old age and only then be gripped by an overwhelming urge to tell my story before it was too late. I decided then and there that I would write an account of how and why I had created HOMU. Eventually it dawned on me that I would have to go further back in time to reconstruct the path that led me there and include the indispensible role that my partner, performer Daniel J. Isengart, played in my life. I was going to have to write an autobiography.
From the very beginning, I knew that I was only going to be able to accomplish this by using the kind of subterfuge I had always used in my art: appropriation. And what better model to use than Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas? The parallels were striking: Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein were an insouciant lesbian couple of American expatriates living in early 20th-Century Paris -- Daniel J. Isengart and I were an insouciant gay couple of European expatriates living in present-day New York City. They were at the center of the emerging avant-garde -- we were at the fringes of the contemporary art scene. They struggled to find acceptance in the literary world -- we continued to defy all odds to make our mark in the art and performance world. They were utterly devoted to each other. So are we.
I set to work immediately. Adapting both the structure and syntax of Stein's book for mine was at once demanding and liberating. In order to channel the voice of Stein (who herself had channeled Toklas's voice in her book), I had to weigh every phrase against the original. But it also enabled me to be much bolder than I would have dared to be had I written a straightforward account of my life. For one, it allowed me to indulge in exploiting exteriority as a sneaky way to divulge underlying truths. Then, it gave me license to elevate myself and Daniel in hilarious, seemingly grand ways. Stein's book had Alice identify the "only three first class geniuses" she'd ever met as Getrude Stein, naturally, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead, a British mathematician. Concluding that I'd have to do the same in The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart, I cast myself as one of the "new" first-class geniuses and asked Daniel whom he'd like to have as "his" other two. He chose the two people he regarded the highest in his own field: Joey Arias and Meow Meow.
The period of the First World War, which takes over an entire chapter in Stein's book, is mirrored in my book, with the conflict we had when our landlord forced us to shut down our live-in museum. The bohemian Montmartre of the 1920s became dowtown New York in the 1990s. And no matter what I described, no matter which of our stories I filtered through Stein, she sat right next to me, guiding me. I took to thinking of her as my ghostwriter.
Adapting Stein's unique focus on exteriorities and her declarative, highly opinionated style, I walked a thin line between appearing self-serving and grandiose and making fun of everything, not least myself. In addition, I reveal rather candid details about our private lives. And since I did not change any names of the myriad people who are mentioned, the book is likely to ruffle more than a few feathers, just as Stein's did when it came out eighty years ago. But more than anything, The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart is a testimony of my love for New York, a city where life can be and has been, for me and Daniel, for the past 25 years, a delirious act of permanent creation.