Monday, April 28, 2008

A Chance Encounter on the Lower East Side

It was the Simone de Beauvoir that started it.

The other day I was in the Lower East Side and decided to go into Pink Pony on Ludlow Street, to spend a few hours reading and sketching. Entering the worn, ambient, bistro-like interior, I immediately thought of cafés such as La Fourmi and La Perle in Paris.

I chose a seat by the window next to two ladies who were finishing their lunch. Settling down at my table, I unpacked necessary items from my bag: sketchbook, diary, pens, and the book I’m currently reading: Simone de Beauvoir’s La Force des Choses: II. After a few minutes one of the women noticed the book lying next to me, pointed it out to her friend, and began speaking to me in French. I explained that I speak French but am actually English. Chatting to them for a while, I was fascinated to learn that both had been key figures in the vibrant 1970s New York art scene. One speaks with a slight English accent - originally from the UK, she has lived in New York for forty years. In answer to my question of why she moved, she answered ‘1968!’. Well, why else? She handed me her business card; the name read ‘Liza Béar’. It immediately seemed familiar to me, but at first I couldn’t work out why.

Soon it all fitted into place. Liza Béar told me she co-founded the groundbreaking, avant-garde magazine Avalanche with her then-partner, Willoughby Sharp. By giving a voice to artists rather than relying on critics, the magazine helped launch the careers of daring artists such as Joseph Beuys and Vito Acconci. I met Willoughby last summer as he had a piece in SculptureCenter’s Fall exhibition. It was also my job to update and edit his biography – hence why I had come across Liza’s name. The once radical, provocative performance artist is now sadly battling with cancer, but he was still very friendly and I remember he gave me a cheeky wink and a pat on the shoulder when I came to collect a DVD from his Greenpoint home.

The other lady is Coleen Fitzgibbon. She too had played an active part in the underground art scene that exploded in 1970s New York – a time when the Lower East Side and Soho were still havens for struggling artists and penniless musicians. Googling her name the day after, I found out she produced the film From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995) – as I'm a big fan of Godard’s A Bout de Souffle this was an exciting discovery. Liza Béar has just published a book called Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers. I am particularly envious of the fact that she has interviewed Agnès Varda, one of my favourite filmmakers.

Photo: Liza Béar (left) and Coleen Fitzgibbon

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