By JANE RANKIN-REID, October 2022
Chapter One: It Would Take A Diagram
The space between our eyes is limitless as we lie touching beyond sight of ourselves. The distance of our gaze is rendered infinite, an un-space of pressed absence, yet just within vision and consciousness. It would take a diagram. How do you picture the soul’s enchantment?
Edit DeAk, Patrick Fox, Rene Ricard, Lester Bangs, Duncan Smith, Rammellzee
Dear Tomorrow’s Girl,
The infamous And beautiful so-much-To-give After decades Of not at all being stingy. Now I need. I need. OMG! How dirty of me to have some bits of need - just tangible and temporary, like Just for jump starts ••• coz I got stock. Sure, I have grand heroic friendships. And I have many that are not alive to be together through this ... Still it amazed me how the very ones who were the 'piece of cakes', mostly chose to depart. The way of Marie Antoinette rather than help me with Some morsels ••••Oh well, I must be too grand for morsels. Something dignified like Starving (while chewing on my nerves like Chaplin on his Shoelace) would be more me.
Edit the Deaf Hermit Dowager…28.05.2017
Edit De Ak’s riffling Magya-Hungarian language keyboard confused many, but it was a textual game for her, more letters than she could be bothered dealing with. An adventure of umlauts and squiggles inhabited virtually every sentence she wrote. Her punctuation, unconventional capitalizations and random topical sequences drove editors crazy, but that was their problem, not ours. This story begins in real time chat boxes, messages exchanged in tiny windows of electronic connectivity. Edit tapping into an iPhone in Manhattan, me replying from a laptop in Tasmania.
When it first crept among us like a vapor or a new drug, social media’s hyper connectivity gave downtown New Yorkers of Edit’s and my 1970s and 80s generation a kind of midlife diary scaled for speed and brevity. Visually inclusive, my downtown NY friends used it as an online platform of shared awareness, passion, encouragement and cultivation, the strut of daily self in image banks of picturing, networking and reminiscences of art and life. For me, it was a conduit back to an essential part of my consciousness I’d long felt was lost to me living tucked away in Tasmania. Within hours of reconnecting, the timeless familiarity of New York’s tender abrasive instant intimacy, of tragedies shared, melodramas, outrages, bubbling surges of empathy, gratitude and regret brought back many of the characters who’d shaped my young adult life.
Edit ain’t dead yet.
No lie. She's still being made to breath. I guess some consider it living. She wasn't dead when someone posted an obit prematurely. I was trying to help assist Edit exit this world as gracefully as she existed, with dignity and physical beauty intact... It’s time to come clean, Edit's body is actively dying, she would probably have died earlier this week. But now let's all give thanks that we were lucky enough to live in a world where we got to know Edit and thank the universe for sharing her intelligence, humor, beauty, grace, her bravery, for her knowledge too and that we lived in a time when Edit de Ak was allowed to show us the new and explain it to us in a manner that put it into a context for the ages…because of her brilliance, our culture flourished, if only for a few years. We must pray that the youngsters get an Edit who will light their world - she's dead. Just now she died.
Fly Edit Fly
(Patrick Fox, 10 June 2017)
She’s gone now. Left yesterday. It was a painful way to die, although she would have been cheered by outpourings of love from friends drawn together online from across the globe. To wait through the final hours of her life. For us, she lived outside the perimeters, defying death, re-emerging, suffering and surviving, always acutely attuned to the poetics of the now. Surrealistic silliness surfed the waves of her ground breaking prose. She wrote like she had nothing to lose. She made enemies and broke hearts. Some friends had given up on her long ago. By the end of her life, she felt her influential ‘stock’ of famous artist friends had dwindled to a small handful. Even so, the response to her death underlined the downtown NY art community’s shared respect for brave unconventionally creative people, for their honorable legacy of failure too.
Edit De Ak’s surname was spelled several different ways throughout her life. Deak, her original Hungarian name was Magyar-ized into DeAk and finally to De Ak after NY debt collectors began chasing her close to the end of her life, when our friendship resumed after decades in 2015. Her embodiment of the moderne or modernity, of art as life was one of the essential elements that made it happen for all of us. She was a poet of a writer who turned art criticism into a form of literary theatre. From the mid 1970s onwards throughout the 1980s, downtown New York would not have been the same without her.
In truth, Edit DeAk had been in my life since the early 1980s from the beginning of my first gallery job at Matignon Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York City. The owner, Paul Kovesdy was an Hungarian concert Lieder singer and former Ministry of Culture executive under Prime Minister Janos Kadar’s first brief term in government, in those ten optimistic days before the people’s uprising and the Soviet invasion in November, 1956. Some years later in 1968 at the age of 20, Edit staged an epic cover of night escape with her husband, photographer Peter Grass in the trunk of a car driven across the Hungarian-Yugoslavian border. Long before I met her, Edit’s daring flight to freedom was a frequent topic of afternoon conversation amongst the coterie of exiled elderly Eastern European artists, writers and musicians who often visited me at the gallery. Artists Andor Weininger and Andre Kertesz brought the glorious innovations of early modernism to life for me. For many though, it was as if Edit was the only young person they knew in the city. After their similarly risky escapes from Hungary, they set formidable comparisons of others’ arrivals from afar. “She got here hidden in the trunk of a car. How did you flee the oppression of your obscure origins?” I had a lot to live up to.
I’d arrived in Manhattan in early 1979 at the age of twenty-two without knowing a soul. Escaping my provincial early life in Tasmania was incomparable to Edit’s dangerous flight from Stalinist Budapest. But my need to flee Australia’s cultural narrowness and habitual way of lowering one’s expectations was paramount. I would have done anything to get out of there. When I landed in NY, I was a naive curious chance-seeker, small, blonde, uncoordinated, at risk of falling apart from my own careless ignorance of how the city operated. At first, I regularly lost apartment keys, rent money, even my grandmother’s fur coat. Alone, fascinated, I was forensically focused upon the way NY constantly abetted my very being. It had entered my bloodstream from the moment I arrived. In the beginning, a subway trip to Con Edison’s downtown offices to pay an overdue gas bill payment was as rich an experience as discovering Central Park. Romantic, idealistic, I turned strategically placed benches in Manhattan’s museums into seats of learning. Henri Matisse’s Piano Lesson at MoMA, the Guggenheim’s rotunda, Umberto Boccioni’s bronze futuristic Unique Forms in the Continuity of Space guarding the entrance to an arcade of Mesopotamian reliefs at the Metropolitan Museum all captivated me. Watching great art works felt simply wonderful after years of shrunken published illustrations. I wanted to write and was also inextricably drawn to art from childhood afternoons spent painting with my father, listening to his stories of the timeless rebellion of masterpieces of artistic consciousness. Brush marks symbolising revolutionary uprisings. In my conservative homeland, art represented the purest kind of freedom to me. Anything compromising that liberty felt oppressive. After several waitressing gigs, I got the Madison Avenue gallery job where my understanding of how art functioned in society began to shift dramatically. My eyes were prised wide open to the culture of creativity exploding around me.
Edit stood out in the downtown New York club and gallery scene when I first started bumping into her in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was always shockingly moderne, part Bauhaus pathfinder, part decadent man-eating muse. Her brilliant henna-reddened, blunt clipped Louise Brooks-style haircuts and savvy street glamour outfits turned heads at gallery openings, performances, concerts and clubs. Her eyes brushed you with veiled curiosity before a flicker of recognition registered. Her exotically accented greetings were pronouncements, words played out for affect in carefully chosen company. Edit knew how to plant a bomb. DeAk’s influence was widely felt in the downtown New York art scene as a founding publisher of ArtRite (with Walter Robinson and Joshua Cohn), a discoverer and defender of graffiti art and one of the initiators of Printed Matter, the innovative not-for-profit bookstore gallery that continues today.
When I was properly introduced to Edit DeAk in 1983, the night she said my name back to me as if it was an object, she was already a heroine to me. ‘Train is Book’, her seminal essay on the artist Rammellzee appeared in Artforum earlier that year. Her approach to writing with artists, rather than about them, seemed breathtakingly noble to me. Crafted to echo the energy of their work, her style provoked an innovative way of reading art works by listening to them. Her words bore the sound of poetry charging into a room full of static formalists.
Rammellzee was richly schooled in the theatrical proselytizing of the Five Percenters and other street sermonizers of the 1970s and early 1980s. The tall willowy self-taught artist often wore a long flowing coat. Beneath a cloth or leather cap, a black do-rag held down his tight Afro-Italian pin curls. A sartorial street dandy, the artist strode rather than walked, his majestic persona an ill-concealed front of unabashed confidence. Unique, vividly focused, as hot as a trashcan street fire, smiling like an angel through big bright brown eyes, assailing audiences with the complex rigors of his historic language-based theories. His theoretical sermons were spoken in chanted rhythms, his voice ranging from a deep melodious basso to a graveled snarl. Rammell’s theatrical vocal antics spelled out judgment as justice was served after intergalactic battles were won. It was the sound of a god tearing a generation of children’s afternoon cartoons apart.
In Train is Book, DeAk reflected Rammell’s voice as the architecture of his philosophical performance, the strut of his pronouncements rapped out in grave utterances. Listening so as to be able to write with this kind of energy became an ideal for me, something to learn to be good enough to get published. DeAk was adamant, you didn’t just have to look at art, you had to hear it too. Still, at the edge of DeAk’s firmament, I sometimes felt my voice did not need to be heard amidst such luxuriant intellectual company. It was inspiring yet intimidating to be amongst people who were changing culture in this way. They showed me the way the city of New York could cause you to become your own story if you listened hard enough.
‘I was just a girl reporter on the make’, Edit threw into an essay on the Italian artist Francesco Clemente for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in 1984. Her glib line flicked a switch for me. I was shaken by the way she bared her vulnerabilities with the blow torch of her intellect. Just as music writer Lester Bangs and poet flaneur Rene Ricard had. Edit was my female Lester and as formative an influence. Collectively, their writing entered my arteries when I first read their work. They were a divided trio of unique contemporary urban voices, stylishly unselfconscious literary transmitters of the raw nuances of the immense cultural change underway in America and especially in downtown New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My heroes.
When we reconnected in 2015, I told Edit about how much like Lester she’d been for me. She was blown away. They’d never met in the 1970s and early 80s downtown scene. Lester wasn't into art although given how small the late 1970s NY scene was, they were bound to have been at the same clubs and events more than once yet never connecting. But always knowing of one another vaguely. As was the way of the intersecting downtown art and music scenes in those days. Magnetic peripheries, eddying clots of influence, silhouettes of evolving identities. Edit and Lester’s critical writings were differently focused. But as forces of literary persuasion, Edit De Ak, Rene Ricard and Lester Bangs were the Antonin Artauds of my early adult brain.
On that cold June 2017 mid-winter morning in Tasmania, Edit’s death left me weeping with gratitude and sadness. As yesterday’s evening darkened in New York City, the online sounds of grief quietened. I pictured familiar empty hot summer nighttime Manhattan streets and suddenly felt very alone. I will always miss her soulfully deviant beautiful accident of a life.
Towards the end, as her illness and addiction advanced, Edit told me she was beginning to feel she’d used up all her magnetizing karma, her street cred was disappearing. The energy behind her persuasive social presence was diminishing fast. She was feeling old, deaf and increasingly unwell. When she first reached out to me in 2015, Edit touched me deeply. Day after day her morning poems of scattered lines trafficked in a chat box left me needing to hear from her.
One morning in the late winter of 2015, after months of these exchanges Edit wrote; “Wake up! Wake up! I can’t wait for you to wake up to your tomorrow. My today. Patrick Fox just showed me a picture of you. Now I remember who you are!” Rekindling friendship over thirty years later was easy even though we’d previously known each other mainly through shared close friends and collaborators. Clearly though, at least in the beginning of our exchanges, Edit had no real idea of who I was. Yet, because of the past and the many beloved friends we’d lost in the intervening years, renewing such bonds between Edit and I was preciously easy. We were two writers who’d loved the same artists over three decades ago so it did not seem in the least bit strange to reconnect with her online all these years later. At a time when we were both losing so much. Again. Typically NY.
Art was the only thing we trusted to protect our perceptions of freedom. But from our separately exiled vantage points, the heady tempo of discovery and recovery and the affirmative force field of the city’s creative adventures was leaving us behind. We were both unprepared for what was coming next in our lives. For me, the need to reinvent myself at the cruel end of a relationship was proving troublesome in a small town on a small island. My dying mother was withholding the identities of my two dead brothers. The feeling of losing my voice as a writer was disorientating, as if I’d disappeared within myself. It was hard to open up emotionally when I’d lost the sound of reality in my head, when the words cease unfurling, when the fog of disappeared dreams descended. In conversations with this famous near stranger welcoming me back into her own crumpled intellectual realm after three decades absence, it was our respective brands of helplessness that brokered the relaunch of our friendship. Each of us wallowing separately in abject fatalism after losing laptop hard drives sheltering precious drafts of tell-everything memoirs, scraped into hopeful time-spanning sequences. Unsaved histories suffocated mid-flow in cyber-hell. Another page upon the pyre of self-sabotaging fuck-ups. Time was leaking, emotional energy flat lining, my soul felt soiled with misery. For Edit DeAk, it was close to the end of her life.
There can be no past tense for her though. She’s going to need to stay in my head as a kind of broken talisman for the rest of this story. Someone to hold oneself to. In the storm of consciousness the job of remembering causes, she’ll need to be ready for when the corrosion of doubt weathers the inside of the mind. Someone to be brave enough for, even as she herself failed to finalize her own ideal status in the art world.
Edit’s imagined presence in this story also represents the time “before art got too hard” as she put it. Of when poetry stood beside art in life in the 1981-1983 epoch now recognized as ‘the thirty six months that changed the world’. New York Times writer Frank Bruni wrote “Decades are like people. Some take up more oxygen than others”, of those heady days when anything denying that meaningfulness was not worth our precious time. Flames stoked to life by dangerous people like her. She was acute, loving, and frightful with dreadful insightful charm and biting humor. Edit DeAk stole liberties that should have been taken eons ago. She brought out the ‘bold’ in all her real friends. Defiant Dadaist selfishness.
Some months after our friendship renewed in 2015, I asked if she remembered her secretary, the writer Duncan Smith standing up at the long table dinner-party we hosted at Nirvana in Times Square, for the opening of Rammellzee’s Private Collection of the Magistrate and the Nine Cases of Assassination, in September 1984. Edit, me, John Lurie, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Arto Lindsay, Seth Tillett definitely, Koor 1 too. Toxic and Rene Ricard, yes he was there. Rammellzee of course, Fred Braithwaite, Ingrid Sischy, Stephen Torton, Guillaume Gallozzi, Charlie Ahearn, Joe LaPlaca, Gianfranco Mantegna and Keith Haring. Jean-Michel Basquiat did not arrive. But Futura 2000, A1, Phase 2, Delta and a whole crew of downtown A-listers were there.
There was a tinkling sound. Silence fell among the guests. Duncan raised his glass. “All my friends are bastards!” he called out. There was a brief hush, a trickle of surprised laughter. Perhaps the sound of chair legs scraping in the air of unease in this new kinship of collective worthlessness. I caught a glimpse of John Lurie’s beautiful pale equine face staring straight ahead, of Edit as she leaned towards a table companion as if to ignore Duncan completely. Perhaps the others were pretending not to hear him too.
Duncan took another breath. “And you're all here!” Now they were listening.
Rammellzee’s The Private Collection of the Magistrate and The Nine Cases of Assassination was always going to be a tough show to sell, in spite of the expense of a full page pure Pantone Yellow ArtForum advert and matching gallery wall paint. Within days, Rammellzee launched a second sizeable show of recent work at Carla Stellweg’s gallery in Soho. The competition to persuade collectors to buy his work was fierce. Producing both exhibitions took an Herculean effort for Rammell and his assistant Stephen Torton. In the frenzied days before the Gallozzi LaPlaca gallery show opened, the words Free Nelson Mandela appeared high on the walls of the empty warehouse we’d rented on Desbrosses Street, when the plaster board collapsed under the strain. Sales on nearby Canal Street of a truck load of red Sperry TopSider boating shoes, delivered by mistake to the warehouse’s loading dock, kept the crew in weed, Colt 45 beer, pizza and epoxy until they reached the finish line.
Art impresario Heiner Friedrich and his wife Philippa de Menil had become followers of Sufism in the late 1970s though their dedication to dangerous art continued unabated. They brought their baby in a pram to the gallery with Heiner’s teenaged daughters Sixtina and Saskia to check out Rammellzee’s show. In what seemed like a split second and with a minimum of fuss Heiner announced they’d decided buy the entire Private Collection section of the exhibition excluding one piece which the artist insisted on owning in perpetuity to control his copyright and exhibition rights. Rammellzee would retain ownership of the tenth piece. Heiner and Ramm had worked it out between them. His wishes would be respected.
It was my earliest experience of artists wanting to maintain rights to where and how their imagery could be used commercially. Rammellzee was among several leading NY graffiti writers who were increasingly wary of their art work being ripped off in advertising backdrops, style imitations and the emerging mass market of street wear and accessories. They’d seen artists of color being feted then abandoned by the contemporary art world. Their artistic rights mattered a great deal to them. It was no accident that Al Diaz and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graphic Samo-signed street artworks were always accompanied by copyright symbols.
As the Gallozzi LaPlaca gallery director, it fell to me to ensure the invoice for the sale included the specific details of Rammellzee’s continuing ownership of one of the Private Collection of the Magistrate cases. It was the beginning of our literary collaboration. Rammell dictating everything from Ransom Notes, faxes to collectors, librettos, exhibition and performance proposals as well as amendments to his Treatise of Gothic Futurism. His poetic manifestos reiterated the importance and meaning of arming alphabet letters and their strike range against the ‘trick knowledge’ of language’s inherent racism and injustice. No one else I knew was articulating the depth of rage racism caused in American life so fervently. No one I knew was as determined to put language on trial for the sake of justice and equality. Factually, his Treatise of Gothic Futurism was whimsical yet supercharged with fearsome revolutionary menace. It became my job to keep pace with his literary rapping as he acted out sketches of an array of specifically armed characters. Or paused to extrapolate upon his arsenal of weaponized letters. Trying not to interrupt his flow.
The cold metallic smell of his decorative armored cladding mingled with whiffs of coconut oil, weed and booze enveloped Rammell’s arrivals and departures. “Word up!” He’d announce when he came to spend an evening writing with me at our loft at 14 Delancey Street. “Catch it tight”, he’d say, disappearing into the night many hours later, his arm upraised in tender gleeful triumph. From 1984 until the early 1990s, on typewriters and in note books, on napkins, beer mats and in margins, whenever he showed up in the gallery or at my house, I’d end up spending hours writing with Rammellzee.
The Friedrich’s purchase of the art works was virtually the only work of Rammellzee’s we sold in America that 1984 season. The rest is the subject of an urgent historic cultural recovery. Most of his prodigious surge of artistic production that year went to collectors in the UK, Italy and Holland. His art was hard to sell in America in those days. He would never enjoy the art market feeding frenzy Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work underwent, before he was dumped for his runaway addiction. The difference in Rammellzee and Basquiat’s sales was just one of the frustrations of their influential albeit relatively brief artistic friendship. But in their early days, they dreamed of being hung in the world’s greatest museums.
For Edit, discovering street art was “information from the middle of the night.” Such sharp insights did little to cease the enormity of her self doubt, her arrested prose and the growing sense of loss that the gross act of not writing was causing within her. But there were other crushing blows to her idealistic vision of the art of change too. Because from the mid 1980s onwards, downtown New York’s burgeoning capital intensive art scene literally erased the minority graffiti artists it had once so warmly celebrated. Now warmly recognized as the instigators of America’s first urban indigenous art form, the curatorial deletion of the city’s most prominent artists of color three and a half decades ago represents one of the US art world’s gravest cultural crimes.
“All my friends are beautiful”, Edit DeAk yelled back the night Duncan made his pronouncement. “Except for Ingrid, because she doesn’t need to be!”
The last time I saw Edit DeAk in person was in the bright street light half a block away in the early summer of 1990. I was walking to a bar with Michael Archer, my editor from ArtScribe UK, and several other friends and acquaintances after the opening of Fin de Siecle, an installation of stuffed toy harp seals balanced on ice flow sheets of styrofoam by Canadian activist-conceptualists General Idea at Koury Wingate Gallery on Broadway. We could see Edit sitting on the sidewalk in the early evening with the artist Richard Hambleton. In the orb of street light thrown down upon the pair, his bright white shirt and Edit’s suntanned legs and burnished hair seemed to vibrate. She wore a pair of khaki shorts and sandals. They were hanging out, itching and worrying, waiting to score. The people with me all knew the artist and the legendary critic wasting their lives in the middle of a recession on the sidewalk quite well, me too.
Richard was an exceptional artist steadily disappearing into an addiction that would annihilate his once stellar reputation as a leading downtown shape shifter. The Canadian born painter’s calculated, street-wise placement of bold silhouetted caricatures for maximum visibility was too white for some. He spoke with a careful enunciated quietness, as if to set himself apart from the primal animating force of his vivid painting style. Richard’s noirish human-scaled black ‘Shadow Men’, painted in bold black brushstrokes in doorways, walls and high on oddly positioned ledges were startling to me. Their urgent energy shifted my focus towards the city’s shadows, into its darkness. Street art was how I discovered the energy of the New York of my dreams.
‘Ugh, blood!’ old friends and commentators squirmed when an article appeared in 2016 about Hambleton’s artistic revival with a retrospective exhibition. It canvassed what he’d been doing in the intervening thirty or so lost years since we’d last heard of him. After widespread international success, his appetite for drugs and women had brought him undone he said in an interview promoting his first show in decades. Strung out and broke, he’d painted a number of canvases in his own blood when he used up all his paint supplies. Although Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’, a life sized self-portrait cast in frozen coagulated blood and Hermann Nitsch’s beef-blooded ‘Action150’ are grossly acceptable, for a junkie whose world had become so literally drained of color, the debased act of harvesting his own bodily fluids as a material resource disgusted many acquaintances and former friends.
There were murmurings amongst the crowd I was walking with, at the sight of the two degenerate has-been cultural heroes smashed out of their heads in front of us. In anticipation of an embarrassing encounter…Say what? Suppressive, avoidant sanitized cultural revisionism in the face of AIDS, more fear than moral disgust yet leeched of anything resembling loyalty or empathy. Abruptly, concertedly, in a collective act of co-dependent cowardliness, we crossed the street and passed them on the opposite pavement without looking back. WM
Tasmanian based writer, curator and art critic Jane Rankin-Reid writes fiction and critical essays. An amanuenses to the artist Rammellzee, she is 1980s New York legacy graffiti artist Koor 1’s biographer. The former Keeper of The John Deakin Archive (UK), she has worked as a foreign correspondent, editor and columnist in newspapers, art magazines and journals in the US, India, Nepal, Japan, Europe, UK and Australia. A US Editor for ArtScribe UK, Art+Text Australia and Senior Writer at Tehelka, New Delhi, her essays and feature articles have been published in Le Monde, The Guardian, the Australian Financial Review, the Mercury Tasmania and First Post India, among others.
It Would Take a Diagram is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Color of Night, Jane Rankin-Reid’s unpublished memoir of the 1980s downtown New York art scene. Photo by Caroline Darcourt, Paris, 2021view all articles from this author