Make me famous

“Having a fine time in the middle of a decaying city” – the legendary Marguerite Van Cook tells stories from the 80s East Village art scene
By J.L. Sirisuk | Art | 22 February 2023

©Gary Azon art patrons taken at B-Side Gallery 1984

Why would anyone venture above 14th Street? It was the 80s and the East Village was decaying, but the artistic radicals with an uninhibited, almost lawless sense of experimentation kept a pivotal time in New York’s cultural history alive and pulsing. It was an era of pain and joy, when letting your guard down and embracing community replaced incessant posturing – the days of countless gallery shows a night and a DIY approach to life. From filmmakers Brian Vincent and Heather Spore, Make Me Famous tells the story of the late painter Edward Brezinski and his hunt for notoriety in New York’s art world. Surrounded by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Wojnarowicz, David McDermott, Kenny Scharf, Marcus Leatherdale, and Claudia Summers, it was a time for the expressive rebels. Make Me Famous hones in on the story of starving artists, queer spaces and avant-garde possibilities.

Within this vivacious scene was Brezinski, a painter from Michigan who endeavoured to be respected as both a gay man and an artist while running the Magic Gallery from his apartment on Third Avenue, displaying and celebrating the work of his peers. Through this new documentary we are given access to those who knew him, and an entire world is revealed to us outside the glam of downtown legends. Brezinski may not have reached the same level of fame as his contemporaries but Make Me Famous shows that he was an integral part of the scene. Through archival footage and interviews, gallery owners and artists of the time unguardedly share insight into the lives of their peers.

At one point the filmmakers travel to France in search of Brezinski – is he actually still alive? His obituary mentioned an incident where he poisoned himself after eating part of an installation called Bag of Donuts. When he died in France, he had the phone number of artist and writer Marguerite Van Cook on his person, but questions still hung in the air. On receiving a phone call telling her about the news, Van Cook and her partner, artist James Romberger, travelled to Cannes with the filmmakers to discover the truth. Not only did Van Cook front The Innocents and tour with The Clash and The Slits, she and Romberger also founded Ground Zero Gallery in the mid-80s, presenting work by the likes of Richard Kerns, Mike Osterhout, Brezinski, David Wojnarowicz, and Martin Wong. A New York legend herself, we spoke with Van Cook about Brezinski, hosting acid art parties, and what made the East Village so creatively fertile. 

J.L Sirisuk: I know you grew up in the UK – what lured you to New York and what were your first impressions of the city?
Marguerite Van Cook: The Lower East Side was extremely raw but it was full of potential. My first experience was with my punk band. I was ripped off by my management – he sent us here to play gigs and there were no gigs, he just took our record money. So we came to New York and we were thrown in the deep end. We made friends with CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and our guitar player was American so he knew some of the people. It was full of potential, lots of energy, excitement and I sort of jumped into the tail end of the New York punk scene. My feeling was that punk had finished and we were going into New Wave, and so I was much more interested in the art scene. I started a gallery and that was exciting.

JLS: In terms of creative expression, do you feel it was more uninhibited then and people were making their own rules?
MVC: It was so much smaller, much more intimate, more available, and so we enjoyed an intense period of activity where we were competitive with a sense of camaraderie. It was so energetic, there were probably fifteen openings from different galleries in one night. We served elaborate cocktails and in New York at that time you could drink in the streets, we would be dressed in evening gowns and go from one place to the next with a cocktail in our hands. You would run into another group of people who were equally dressed up just having a fine time in the middle of a decaying city. It was all just extraordinarily imaginative – it was wonderful. 

JLS: And it was before social media, so all events were spread by word of mouth?
MVC: It was word of mouth. We would make posters and everywhere on the streets were flyers. A day in my life would be designing the flyers and making the artwork for the show. At night we would put up the flyers which had to be done quietly, and then the next night would be the show. We would get dressed up, go to the show, have some drinks, have some fun, and then start the process over again. It was very intimate and we knew everybody, all the galleries were like small families.

“We would be dressed in evening gowns and go from one place to the next with a cocktail in our hands”

©Jonathan Postal for October 1984 NY TALK Magazine, Painter Edward Brezinski and CLICK models

JLS: And through all of this you met Edward Brezinski. Can you tell me about the first time you met him?
MVC: I was introduced by my friend Tony Love, who had a column then in the East Village Eye. Edward had a tremendous amount of style, he was very charming, very formal, and there’s been a lot of talk about how run down his space was. But in our minds, it was quite fabulous. What he did was take a loft, gut it, put up white walls and show artwork. When I went to Belgium with my partner James [Romberger], Edward threw a gallery show for us when we came back and he must have spent a thousand dollars on flowers, the whole gallery was just full of floral arrangements. It was so completely over the top but brilliant. He was so lovely, it was like a fantasy.  

JLS: He ran The Magic Gallery out of his apartment – did he regularly host work by his friends?
MVC: Edward had a salon every Sunday afternoon. Just imagine, the only day in New York where you couldn’t get a drink somewhere, or go to a nightclub was a Sunday afternoon, so Edward’s salon was on Sunday afternoons – it was brilliant. He had the best poets and the best writers doing performances. It was a really sparkling crowd, we would all get dressed and put on our finest to go to Edward’s salon.

“What he did was take a loft, gut it, put up white walls and show artwork.”

JLS: You and James [Romberger] opened Ground Zero, what can you tell me about opening the gallery and the type of space you were trying to create?
MVC: At the time we opened Ground Zero, we had been doing these giant club shows where we’d put up 50 paintings in the night and took them down the next day. Some of them were up to 100 paintings. We would paint the walls and the gallery space, and we did an acid show that moved around quite a lot because people loved the show. At one point there’s this whole episode with Martin Wong and I think it’s even on Wikipedia: we gave him acid and he gave away his paintings. Anyway, someone gave us a gallery one night. We were walking home and they were like, “Here’s the keys to Civilian Warfare,” which was David Wojnarowicz’s gallery. At two o’ clock in the morning. They said, “Here. Take the keys” and we were in business. So we started our gallery and I thought it was very important to do installations because there were no galleries doing them at that time. I committed with James Romberger to making shows that really pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in the art world at the time, and the artists we showed would say, “Would it be alright if I did this?” And my response was always, “Do more. Push. Go harder. Just break the boundaries, break the rules.” That allowed us to get the best artists.

Self Portrait by Edward Brezinski, 1976

JLS: What are some memorable shows that spring to mind?
MVC: We had David Wojnarowicz with Richard Kern screen the premiere of You Killed Me First [a 1985 film portraying a young woman rebelling against her family’s conservatism and region], they bricked off half the gallery and made it look like an abandoned lot. They had sirens going and then it was like people sitting around a table, these skeletons with maps on them and the movie playing over the top with blood spattered everywhere. People were afraid to come into the gallery. They would come in the front door and then they’d see they couldn’t actually make it to the scenario in the back. We had to leave the back of the gallery and go out into the streets to get into our own gallery, so that was fun.

We had another show by Mike Osterhout that was called Hell and it was all painted red, he had red curtains everywhere and a flame in the middle. The fire department kept coming because it looked like it was on fire, so we had to shut down. I loved my own shows, I did a mural of a club that was down the road. It makes no sense really, but it was the east wall and the west wall, which is a sort of war zone about the boundaries we were living in. We were contained in the East Village in the Lower East Side, we never went above 14th Street except to go to certain clubs. Everything happened in this very contained space.

JLS: At one point in the film, it was mentioned that “the social scene was funerals.” So there was also a darker element to this period. What can you share about the impact this time had on artists?
MVC: We are really suffering from PTSD. We had stress from that period we didn’t even realise we were carrying. It was horrible, all of the dread we experienced was snuffed out in months. It was just gone and as I said, each of those galleries was like a small family, but we also knew that when one person in the gallery was sick, probably everyone in that small circle was going to succumb to this horrible illness. We were angry, so obviously our social world changed. We were really angry and upset all the time – we were already political in many respects, but it went to being much more specifically political about our response to the AIDS epidemic. We were losing our friends at a rapid rate. It was indescribably horrible, I have no words for it. I’m currently the president of Visual AIDS. We have an archive of artwork collected from those who died from HIV/AIDS. Visual AIDS is an important organisation for people to come look at the slides and look at the work that was made by people we lost and people who are now living with AIDS. 

“We were losing our friends at a rapid rate.”

JLS: To move on to the documentary Make Me Famous, how did you become a part of the project?
MVC: We showed Edward’s work twice, we gave Edward two shows in the gallery. I believe he was a really good artist, genuinely a strong painter. He never stopped working, he was the absolute embodiment of what it means to be an artist. Brian [Vincent] came to me because of my friendship with Edward, so I was able to share with Brian that I had been called by the American Consulate to say Edward had died and he had nothing else with him except for my phone number. They called me from Nice, which is where the consulate was at that time, so I said: “Let’s go find Edward. This is time for me to go get him.” He left me the number knowing I would eventually be motivated to look into it. James and I were like, “Okay. Let’s do it. Let’s go.” It was pretty gruelling, it wasn’t a fun trip.

JLS: It seems very emotional too.
MVC: James and I did a graphic novel with David Wojnarowicz. We had been consistently involved with the world of HIV/AIDS and in keeping people’s memories alive. Going to find Edward seemed exactly like what I should be doing, and what James was happy to do with me – it was intense.

JLS: Until this day, there are artists like Edward – talented and in certain circles but who don’t always get the same recognition as their peers. What are some things you want people to know about Edward that made him and his work special?
MVC: He was just a really good painter. His emotional intellect was extraordinary, his references were impeccable and his generosity of spirit was amazing as well. What he did with the Magic Gallery, he put himself out to show other people, to create other legacies and to form community. That’s why in some cases he attained antipathy from other people, because he was such a strong figure in such a vibrant group. There were people who just loved his work, he was in a classical lineage but also an expressionist lineage and I think one of the things he represents for us is that the East Village was a place where painting had a place. Physical painting had a place. It wasn’t just about conceptual work. There was this really strong embodiment, the landscape was primitive and raw so there was a lot of expression in the painting. Of course later when we were dealing with the AIDS epidemic, all of that was coming out in the work as well and Edward really manifested that feeling.

Make Me Famous is out in cinemas now. To find out more about Visual AIDS, click here.


Make Me Famous is in UK cinemas now. Follow the film on Instagram.
Make Me Famous is being screened at Bertha DocHouse until 1st march.

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