Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Edward Avedisian

I met Edward Avedisian by chance at Max’s Kansas City when I sat down next to him at the bar. Otis Redding filled the air. “You know, “ Edward turned to me and said, “Ultimately what pop-music is all about is hiring someone to cry in public for you.” He watched for my response, eyes alert beneath his remarkably high forehead. I would come to know that ‘ultimately’. It was a regular conversational preface, because, as Edward later explained, it was his desire “to describe everything without reference to any convention.”

I ran into him often. He would sit, scruffy, restless, yet somehow detached, watching the crowd of artists, rock and rollers, drag queens, speed fueled denizens of Warhol’s factory ebb and flow, eddying through the smoky darkness around the famous, the rich and those who had drugs to sell. “Something for the head?” a small extremely handsome Apache, so sad and far from home, yet so hip would whisper as he passed by. Edward watched silently, then growled: “ Ultimately, all talk is crime.”

As it turned out, Edward was a painter of great distinction. Recently he'd been very famous, but now not so much so. He occasionally took teaching jobs at provincial universities where he holed up in a motel, ate acid, and generally tried to turn the minds of his students inside out. “It’s a big country, and the only thing keeping it together is television,” said Edward about his travels. Nonetheless, he lived well, had a small house in Chelsea and divided his non-teaching time exercising his lucidity on everything he encountered in bars, drugs and on his painting. “There are only two paths: decadence and spirituality. I have chosen decadence.” He had a wide circle of friends, but I got the impression that his unsparing, random insights made him familiar in many circles, but not a part of them.

Painting however remained his focus.. His pictures continued to explode in uncomfortable contrasts of wild pinks, excessive yellows, soft greens colors, wan blues, applied in blobs and swatches of varying densities and textures. They were simultaneously sophisticated and extravagant almost to the point of tastelessness. When the Metropolitan bought one, he was pleased. “Well, there I am up there with Velasquez and Picasso,” he shrugged. He thought that it was also somehow ridiculous, evidence that the prevailing standards had gone into serious decline.

Late one afternoon, when we’d met because he wanted me to help him sell a painting without his gallery knowing about it, we were walking through Central Park near the museum. “The great impetus in American art is ultimately to recreate the world at the time the artist’s mother was still a virgin. That’s why there’s always so much period recreation in movies and abstraction in art.” A lady swathed in mink walking an emaciated Chihuahua cut past us. “That dog belongs on a bun,” Edward snarled, and the woman, looked at him anxiously as she hurried away.

Usually however, I met Edward late at night at Max’s. Most of our talks took place as we walked, he to home and I to the subway nearby. One cold night, as we left the bar, a troupe of young men, with shiny hair ratted and teased, dressed in bright satin skin-tight pants, velvet jackets, strutted in teetering on alligator boots with two inch platform soles. Edward stopped and watched. “The point is, you could never run away from a mugger in those things. Don’t you think that ultimately they’re trying to magnetize some kind of violence they’ll have to submit to?”

Another night when it was hot and muggy night, you could almost feel the breathing of thousands of people moving torpidly on the streets or stirring in sweaty sleep. Edward talked about a movie he wanted to make called “The Ultimate Bar”. The characters in the film would be the ‘stars’ of a number of different kinds of bars: an Irish workers' bar, a pick up bar, a gay bar, a leather bar, an artists’ bar, a wall street hangout, and so forth. These people would meet periodically at one of their respective haunts, but on one particular evening, one would say he'd finally found the ultimate bar. Then they would all go in a cab uptown to a tough Puerto Rican neighborhood. They’d enter a tenement and make their way up a creaking, urine-smelling staircase to the fifth floor. There, they’d enter a dim slum apartment, rooms painted in streaky, faded Caribbean blues and flamingo pinks, cracked linoleum floors, and all filled with small formica-topped tables. Around all the tables sat parties of middle class people, “really nice, decent people,” Edward explained, “ but they’d all be stoned like they’d each drunk a whole bottle of Romilar cough syrup.” Waiters would circulate attentively, bringing small bowls to each table, and as they withdrew, a sudden glow of light would warm the rapt faces of those sitting around it. Mystified, the new arrivals would move in closer to see what was going on. In each bowl, the people would be burning money. Edward sped through this scenario as we walked; suddenly he stopped: “ This city is the greatest teacher. I’m so, so thankful.”

Late one night, as we neared my subway stop, Edward said: “You know, soon you’re going to have to make up your mind.” I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant, but at the same time, I did know. Now I think that Edward saw me far more clearly than I then saw myself, and his remark that night still touches me as a gesture of true kindness.

Just before I left New York, I gave a party for everyone I knew, regardless of their milieux; so there were artists, druggies, musicians, academics, the old lady who sang solitary hymns in the adjoining apartment late into the night, secretaries, school teachers, therapists and so on. Edward arrived early in a black motorcycle jacket. He was exhausted from some long acid trip and he collapsed on the couch. Ray Johnson, alert, gossipy, and always seeming to be so sweetly innocent, circulated, soliciting people right and left to sign up for the whimsical witty mailings of his New York CorrespondAnce School. (Who would imagine then that years later he would end his life, swimming solo and intent off into the cold night sea?) He spotted Edward napping. “Oooooh,” he whispered in my ear, “Edward, he’s very rare now.”

My life outside New York was involved almost completely in Buddhist study and practice, but I heard that Edward had painted huge murals for Green’s, a posh restaurant run by the San Francisco Zen Center. No, he hadn’t become involved with Zen in any other way, but he was said to be friends with Baker Roshi. That’s all I heard. And when I came back to New York, he had gone. No one seemed to know where.

Still, Edward always remained on the periphery of my thoughts, and recently when I finally succeeded in finding him on the internet, it turned out he had died two months earlier. It seems he had moved to a town on the Hudson upstate, had been living there with a partner for a long time, was active in some organization devoted to rescuing housecats, and had continued to paint. But the paintings I saw on his gallery's web site were figurative landscapes with a distinct kinship to the style of the 1930's. They were clearly about where he lived, all rendered with a sensuous affection, ease, curiosity and, somehow, gratitude.

I was very sorry I had located Edward to late for us to correspond or meet, but I was so deeply relieved that he had come to rest in such a place.

This however still summons the New York of then:

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