A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO I reviewed a Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago for Tablet, the online magazine. The editors, without running it by me before the piece appeared, made the rather odd decision to title my essay, “Why Pop Art Is Jewish.” The oddness derived from the fact that my second paragraph began with the blank assertion, “Pop Art isn’t Jewish.” Why was I even conjoining these two equally fascinating but disparate topics? Because, as I had gone on to explain, in January 1968, when, as an art-and-literature-struck 17-year-old, I had lined up in the freezing air outside London’s Tate Gallery to see Lichtenstein’s controversial show, Pop Art felt Jewish to me.
I assimilated Lichtenstein’s glorious, oversized, comic-strip adaptations as an affront to convention and to what I perceived as the stultifying and exclusive tastefulness and establishment decorum of the WASP world. I paid no heed at all to his concerns with the economics of printing, the industrialization of images, and cultural vulgarization. What I saw instead was a Jewish artist giving the finger (or two fingers as is commonplace in England — a legacy from the Battle of Agincourt when England’s victorious longbowmen waved their string-pulling fingers at incoming French prisoners) to all the clubs (museums, galleries), their dark rooms weighted with ancestral portraits in heavy frames, that wouldn’t want him as a member. In all likelihood, as I pointed out in my article, I was being as silly and wrongheaded as the anti-Semitic French critics of the early 20th century, who responded to Soutine’s expressionism as “Jewish,” mistaking pictorial exuberance for an ethnic endorsement.
Imagine my pleasure then, when in only the second chapter of My Avant-Garde Education, Bernard Cooper’s smart, good-natured, poignant, and openhearted memoir, I came across his report of an experience not dissimilar to my own. In 1966, 15-year-old Cooper had his first major Pop Art experience — a close encounter with both the work and the person of Claes Oldenburg at the Pasadena Museum of Art. Young Cooper saw a door opening, a new world beckoning, but more than this, without realizing it at the time, something in the art sanctioned and blessed his otherness:
Pop art it seems to me in retrospect, was the perfect guise for my nascent homosexuality. Pop scoffed at convention, Pop defied the prevailing aesthetic by not only tolerating, but reveling in, the “unnatural.” Pop found a place in art for everything that society devalued. If there existed a precocious, self-congratulatory aspect of my devotion to Pop art, a willfulness to set my self apart and cultivate my youthful iconoclasm, that devotion also felt helpless, inexplicable, and driven.
So, while for my 17-year-old self Pop Art was subversively Jewish, for adolescent Cooper it was disruptively gay!
Ironically, Cooper’s Los Angeles Jewish family had its own built-in Pop Art component. For, while Cooper was beginning an immersion in conceptual art at CalArts, his father invested in a kosher burrito business. “‘What kind of a rabbi is going to bless burritos?’ asked my mother. I pictured a rabbi in a tallis and sombrero.”
My Avant-Garde Education charts, over a period of four decades, two strands of Cooper’s life that crisscross, become entangled, and for the most part cannot be unraveled: one is his immersion in and clear-eyed assessment of edgy, challenging art, and the other is his life, first as a closeted and then openly gay man. The book is a memoir, but it is also a document of cultural history in America.
Cooper entered the well-lit white-walled world of art school and galleries in the late 1960s (chronology tends toward the avant-garde rather than the precise in this memoir) when things were just about to get interesting. Or perhaps that’s how it’s always been and always will be at art school. He enrolled first at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts and on day one headed off to a class called “Art Praxis” taught by a rising star in the art world, Vito Acconci. Professor Acconci, 15 minutes late arriving, placed a small tape recorder on a table, announced he had run “all the way from Soho while counting,” punched a button, then left the classroom,
occasionally peering through the open door to check our response to his “piece.” (The class listened, increasingly agitated, while the voice on the tape approached 500 via coughs, rasps and struggles for air. When it was over a student at the back of the class yelled, “What’s this got to do with art?” “That’s good,” Mr. Acconci shouted from the hallway. “An excellent question. Thank you.”
As college initiations go, this was a pretty good one (on my first day at university in 1970 a naked student, standing in a fountain, extended his right arm to me to reveal a long gash and asked me if I wanted to lick it), and it wasn’t long before Cooper was making his own pieces, responding to the kinds of wonderfully crafted charges designed to keep students up all night happily alchemizing bullshit into gold in the dorms: “Your assignment for the next class … is to bring in nothing.”
Luckily, both Cooper’s aesthetic and ideational progress had a somatic foundation, “A thrilling paralysis, a churning in my solar plexus; these were (and to a large extent have remained) my sole criteria for judging art,” which accounts for his appealingly low tolerance for pretension. “The spirit of conceptualism” had entered him, but never nullified his gut reactions.
Meanwhile, in New York, anticipating the peregrinations of Sophie Calle by many decades, Vito Acconci’s reputation was burgeoning as he followed random strangers on a daily basis for a month, and had his pseudo-stalking photographed; or, more provocatively, hid in a crawlspace under a false floor in Sonnabend Gallery and masturbated to the sound of footsteps heard overhead. Visitors to the gallery could hear Acconci’s voice via a mic and speakers through which he articulated his bipedal-inspired fantasies.
From the perspective of our own techno-crazed, screen-obsessed world in which we have all, for some time now, been in the service of the robot, the inventive conceptual interventions of the late 1960s and early 1970s now seem almost quaint. (At least something human was going on when Acconci murmured his amplified, “You’re pushing your cunt down on my mouth.”) For young Cooper, starved of sex and struggling his way out of confusion, conceptual art was epiphanic — it sent his heart racing. Yet, by the time he arrived at Walt Disney’s dream-child California Institute of the Arts in 1969, a video shown by and of his teacher John Baldessari teaching the alphabet to a plant already seemed like old news: the “‘cutting edge’ grown dull.” In the end, CalArts didn’t disappoint (its offers included “Introduction to Happenings” taught by Allan Kaprow, who had coined the term), although Cooper continued to disappoint himself, locating girlfriends instead of boyfriends: the terminology of the art that engaged him — “diverted sensation,” “denied matter” — described his personal situation all too well.
Eventually the breakthrough comes, and not long after graduation Cooper is able to announce “easily and often” that he is gay. But the end of the secret life is not the end of adversity, for Cooper’s coming of age as a gay man takes place in the direst of times, with AIDS on the doorstep and then, very quickly, occupying all the rooms of the house. The last 30 pages of My Avant-Garde Education are devoted to a moving and unflinching account of Cooper’s partner Brian’s struggle with AIDS. Here, in a chapter entitled “Something From Nothing,” which returns us to the conceptual challenge issued by Acconci many years earlier, the antic confluence of art and ideas that have sustained and delighted Cooper throughout his life are subsumed in the harrowing details of caring for a sick partner and a character study of love and courage. Cooper’s candid, unsentimental fashioning of this heartbreaking period reminds us, if we needed reminding, that while art school led him to produce a number of attention-grabbing works of art, the métier he discovered there was writing. Always drawn to text-based art, it is through his novel, stories, and memoirs, none of which, tellingly, are avant-garde in form, that we come to apprehend his life.
Bernard Cooper drew the title of his second memoir, The Bill From My Father (this new book is the third), from the kind of parent-child interaction that psychoanalysts can only dream of. Cooper’s father, a tough-minded individual who appreciated neither dependence nor independence in his son, enraged by a tussle over the purchase of a new car for 28-year-old Cooper, sends him an actual bill for “paternal services” that is “somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.” (I have only come across this type of high-comic aggression once before, in the actress Claire Bloom’s memoir Leaving a Doll’s House, in which she reports that, after their breakup, Philip Roth faxed her a bill for services such as hours put in listening to her rehearse dramatic roles.) Cooper knows that his father is living with a diagnosis of geriatric dementia, and his response (as always with this writer) is to take the high road of empathy. In fact, reading Bernard Cooper I thought of Philo’s dictum, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” For, while his critical acumen remains intact and exemplary, it is an open-minded generosity that appears to be this engaging writer’s credo. Shaken by traumas and tremors: the early death of his brother from leukemia, the loss of his parents, Brian’s death after a 15-year relationship, the struggle to embrace an openly gay life, the actual ground moving beneath his feet to devastating effect in the California earthquake of 1971, Bernard Cooper emerges with the abundant compensation of his sophisticated consciousness, art in one pocket, writing in the other.