Thursday, September 1, 2011

dharma of tony

When I told my friend friend that tony had passed away, Seth explained that he hadn’t known Antonio very well but thought he had seemed smart and talented. which struck me as an odd description. Certainly Tony had always been talented, hyper-intelligent, flamboyant. He spent too many hours awake digging through the internet for new artists, new music, new movements, the next big thing. His knowledge was rhizomatic, tendrils of attention ever spreading outward. Even when I first met him as we were students together studying visual art at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, Tony had been precociously smart and talented. One of the first pieces of art he produced for an assignment had been a work fashioned after Mike Kelly: a phallic column composed from stuffed animals stitched together and hung from the top of the stairwell, stretching nearly two stories in the air. We were awed from the beginning; we were inspired and scared. But “sweet?” Was that a good word to describe Tony? This was a young man who would slap me at random moments for no other reason than an as of then undisclosed infatuation with me. He would hit me, and pinch me, and bully me. Then he would walk away as if he had done nothing wrong. Some of his pranks weren’t as painful though and I would often find myself laughing with him. He would saunter through the sculpture studio, hands clasped behind his back holding a piece of glass. He would walk up to some random student diligently working on some art project, would ask the student about his or her day, compliment that student on the work being produced, the technique employed. Then would violently throw the piece of glass or mirror to the floor producing a loud shattering sound, causing the faces of the other students working to look up in alarm, maybe causing someone to mar the art on which he or she had been working. Yet before moving from Birmingham, Alabama to Portland, Oregon, I remember explaining to another credulous peer from ASFA that Tony changed a lot after graduating, after having lived in New York for two years and resettling for a bit back in Alabama. One of my last memories is of a house party in Montevallo Tony threw which my sister and I attended. Tony seemed that night, after knowing him so long, more subdued, more chill, nicer. He was sweet to my sister and me; not just loud, insulting, and over the top as we had always known him. He danced and conversed politely, if flamboyantly, with still the occasional outburst to keep everyone interested. I attributed some of his calm that night to the fact that Tony had finally taken to smoking pot, but I was hoping there was something more here. As my sister and I drove back to Birmingham late that night, I remember saying to her that Tony seemed changed, that perhaps he had “grown-up” finally, that perhaps we could stop worrying about him. I started worrying about Antonio when he first graduated ASFA and left Birmingham to attend the Cooper Union in New York. We had spent the last year obsessing over Matthew Barney, watching endless clips from the final installation of the Cremaster Cycle which had been released the year before. With a dictionary of symbols by our side, we watched the trailer to the Cremaster Cycle repeatedly, searching for clues to unlock its meaning and we thought, yes, this is it, this has to be it. It’s was clearly over the top, so detailed, so dense; in our mind Barney was the James Joyce of our time and this was his Ulysses. We wanted to understand it, to be experts in it, and ultimately to produce art at least as great. Tony also spent that final year obsessing over his senior art show for school, creating art non-stop, art that seemed to fill the entire school, his entire life, leaving no room for anything or anyone else. And he dreamed of the Cooper Union. He wanted it so bad. We made plans to go to New York together after he was accepted. Over a map of New York City we would discuss how he would attend the Cooper Union while I was to get a job and make art for a year while waiting to get accepted into a school in the city as well. We would scour apartment listings, looking for that perfect place where we could live together and make art together. Of course Tony was accepted to the Cooper Union. Of course. No one doubted at all that he would be. He worked too hard, was too talented to be declined. But after he received that big envelope with his letter of acceptance, I decided I should stay in Birmingham, study art history, finish college there, plan for graduate school. Antonio was disappointed, but seemed to understand. From New York I received dispatches from Tony, both from Tony and from other friends. He would explain to me the latest trends, which artists to watch for, what music to listen to. He introduced me to “relational aesthetics” which seemed fascinating to me and seemed hip to him. I finished college by writing my senior paper on this new form of communicative art, though by the time I finished that work, Tony was chastising me, explaining that relational aesthetics was already passé. But other unverified, apocryphal tales filtered down to me from New York as well. After Antonio’s second year in that northern city, I heard that he had been expelled from the Cooper Union. The story would change every time I heard it. From what I came to understand, bored with his foundation art classes at the Union, Tony had taken it upon himself to make larger impression upon the faculty and his peers. He wanted to create art more exciting. So for an assignment he decided to track his professor to her apartment, knock on her door, and throw a net over her, at which point he would capture her as part of a performance art piece. It didn’t end so brilliantly though: the professor punched him through the net, made him leave, and had him expelled from the Union. After his expulsion, Tony stayed with old friends from high school for a while, though eventually he moved back to Alabama, to his family and friends there. He stayed with one friend Kyle for while and she told me a story about how night after getting a job in the city, Tony was complaining about not having any money despite how hungry he was. Kyle looked at him and looked at the pay check in his hand and just asked why he didn’t cash his check. He explained he didn’t have a bank account, and despite that it was too late to go a bank anyhow. So she walked Tony out onto the street and pointed at the four neon signs glowing around them, reading “CASH CHECKS HERE,” thus solving his problem. He proceeded to order every item off a take-out menu and ate just a few bites of each dish. Tony also stayed with another buddy Marcus for a while. I ran into Marcus one night while he was visiting his family in Birmingham. Marcus explained that Tony was a good, if strange roommate. He slept out of the way in a corner of the kitchen, though his presence would some how seem to take up the entire apartment at strange times. Such as one night when Marcus woke up around one in the morning and found Tony in the kitchen wearing a blond wig with a tape recorder, singing along to the Smiths at the top of his lungs. My sister and I basically learned Tony had come back from New York when one night at a lecture by John Waters in Birmingham we were listening to the question and answer session and we heard a familiar voice ask a question of Waters. My sister and I were sitting in the mezzanine of the auditorium and could not see the questioner, but we knew that voice. The question, if there was one, seemed to ramble on for what seemed like ten minutes with prefaces and anecdotes and references to Dennis Cooper. It was him! It was Tony. He was back in town. That was years ago and perhaps some of the only connections we have had since then have been through friends Tony has introduced me to, connections of his also obsessed with Dennis Cooper’s blog. One of these friends in Houston contacted me after his death, to reconnect with me, to comment on how surreal his passing is. And that’s the best word to describe his sudden passing, especially when you have not been right there beside him these years: surreal. And it’s surreal who I’ve reconnected with since Antonio’s death, who have contacted me: friends from high school, friends from Birmingham, friends of Tony’s from his life in Montevallo. And it seems surreal that I was not right there with him as he died. From the time when I first met him, when he irritated me so greatly, to the time when we would spend hours together flipping through old copies of ArtForum, to the time when we dreamed of making art together in New York, to the past few years when his online presence has become unavoidable, it always seemed like his personality has been so great, so bright, so determined and irritating and fascinating and provocative that he would just always be in my life in some way or another, that at some point we would probably be working closely again together. Instead now I am left posting old photos of him and reminiscing about him with my sister and wishing we had been closer these past few years. I’m left with so many questions about his continentally remote death, with regret about how removed from each other that we have been these past couple years, and yet also with all this knowledge, all these references to obscure artists and musicians and movements and philosophers that could have only been transmitted to me through Tony.

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