In the last of three articles, Robert Rosen writes about his friend Robert Attanasio, a New York artist and filmmaker who died in 2015

V: Game Over

On Sunday afternoon, July 12, soon after he’d been released from the hospital, I met Attanasio at the Half King, Table 16. He was wearing an ordinary white shirt, the same kind he’d often worn in college, decorated with a safety pin. As we drank beer and ate fried calamari, he motioned for me to lean across the table. I did so. He reached down, pulled up his pants leg, and, pointing to a lump on his calf, said, “Touch my tumor.”

“I don’t want to touch your tumor. Listen to me: A friend of mine had breast cancer a few years ago and she’s completely recovered. She’s an artist, too—has a studio in Long Island City, as a matter of fact. I told her about you and she said to tell you two things: Get a second opinion and look into alternative treatments.”

He repeated what I said. Then we left the Half King and took the E train to Long Island City.

Attanasio’s art studio, in a modern commercial building under the 23rd Street el, was a narrow room, about 20 feet long, with a window at the far end. Every inch of wall space and most of the table space was covered with art—evidence of a chaotic lifetime of creation and collection, an entire career that I’d long ago lost track of.

Attanasio’s text-based works often used wordplay to comment on the art world—art as art criticism. With ‘Picasso’ he shares his feelings about one of the creative giants of the 20th century. Image courtesy of Jim Kempner Fine Art and the Robert Attanasio Estate.
‘Banal’ is Attanasio’s take on works that hung in museums and galleries and yet, he felt, were trite. Image courtesy of Jim Kempner Fine Art and the Robert Attanasio Estate.

Among his collection was a section of Virgin Mary wall hangings, from kitschy hologram to antique beauty, from the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Weeping Madonna of Syracuse, in a rainbow of colors and a variety of materials; next to that were crucifixes, ranging from abstract to gory and grotesque; and next to those was pornography clipped from magazines. Scattered elsewhere was assorted detritus, such as a plastic scale-model human brain mounted on a pedestal. The rest of the art was his own, mostly word-play paintings, like the one I’d seen in the window of the Kempner gallery: “PIC ASS O”; “MASTURBATE”; “B ANAL”, with the “B” on its side, sitting atop the “A,” as if the “A” were penetrating it between the loops; “PANDERING TO THE MASSES”; and “MORNING WOOD EVENING TIMBER,” the “E” in “Timber” three horizontal lines without a vertical line, as he often did his “E”s.

‘Morning Wood Evening Timber’ is Attanasio’s statement on erections. Image courtesy of Jim Kempner Fine Art and the Robert Attanasio Estate.

Another series of text-based works he called Sightings: “Saw Kara Walker writing in a red notebook on the R Train,” “Saw Dan Graham exit McDonald’s,” “Saw Julian Schnabel look at me looking @ him.”

It was too much to take in at once, but when he felt I’d seen enough to get the idea, we walked to his apartment, a few blocks away, on 45th Road near Vernon Boulevard—an immaculate rent-stabilized two-bedroom in an 80-year-old building, where he’d been living for decades. The apartment was like an extension of his studio: there was art everywhere, including another solid wall of Virgin Marys. I realized that this was the first time I’d ever been in a place Attanasio called home. In college, as did most of us at CCNY, he lived with his parents and never invited people over.

His living room looked out on the PS 1 gallery and a TD Bank, and as we sat there, Attanasio on the couch with his back to the window, me facing him in a wooden chair by the table with his computer, we shared a joint of medical marijuana. Of course I had no way of knowing that this would be the last time I’d ever be there, the last time I’d ever see him, and looking back on the visit, I now realize I should have asked more questions, I should have taken notes and pictures. But I didn’t—because Attanasio still didn’t look like, nor was he acting like, a person who, for all intents and purposes, had received a death sentence. With the exception of that lump on his calf that I’d refused to touch, whatever was going on inside his body still wasn’t showing on the outside. It was as if nothing had changed since our first meeting at the Half King five months earlier.

Also, I was thinking about all the people I’d known who’d had cancer, and about how many of them had recovered completely, like my artist friend who lived a couple of blocks away. And even in the worst cases with the worst outcomes, people had lingered, sometimes for years. There was a new “miracle” drug on the market every week, it seemed, and if Attanasio wanted to live, which he said he did, I assumed that some doctor would find a way to prolong his life. Though he was no longer working at the Cohan gallery, James Cohan had kept him on the payroll and continued to pay for his health insurance; he’d have access to whatever treatments came along.  Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen in slow motion, I thought. I’ll be visiting him a lot in the coming months, and whatever it is he wants or needs me to do, there’ll be plenty of time to do it.

He showed me what he called “counterfeit music videos” he’d made in the 90s. One had rain falling on a skylight as classical music from a composer I’d never heard of, though who reminded me of Vangelis, played. I found it monotonous after a while, but it moved Attanasio to tears, and it was only then that I realized he was seeing the world from the perspective of a man who knew he was dying, and the very sight of rain falling long ago, at a time when death was not so imminent, meant more to him than, at that moment, I was able to grasp.

Then I left, walking down his long entranceway foyer, strung with tiny flashing lights, like a psychedelic airplane aisle. “I don’t know what I can do,” I said, turning to him outside the door. “But if there’s anything, please let me know.”

He nodded and again we embraced.

When I got off the subway, I found on my phone a Photoshopped image Attanasio had texted. A smiling man and woman, standing by the East River in what appears to be Long Island City, are facing each other. Between them is a sign that says in black letters on a yellow background, “Ask me about my tumor.”

Another Attanasio text arrived the following night: Why hadn’t I told him what I thought of everything he’d shown me?

I did the 20th century thing and called him on the phone. I said that I was still processing what I’d seen—pretty much everything he’d been doing in the 40 years since college… it was overwhelming. “Robert,” I said—I never called him Robert and I don’t know why I said it this time—“what amazes me is that your sensibilities haven’t changed at all since OP. You’re still doing now what you were doing then, only you’ve gotten so much better. I loved what you did at City College and I love what you’re doing now. Can I make it any clearer? My only regret is that we fell out of touch for so many years.”

I heard nothing more from Attanasio until I phoned him about a month later, on August 13. He sounded better than I’d expected as he told me that just that morning he’d begun chemotherapy; he was taking a new kind of pill. “The list of side effects is like a scroll—it’s a mile long. It’s going to be a while before I know if it’s going to work.”

Again I asked him if there was anything I could do.

“Like what?”

I offered to come over and cook a meal.

“I don’t want you to be my personal chef.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

He said he’d let me know.

It was the last time we’d speak.

For the rest of the summer, every time I sent him a text asking if he wanted me to visit, or do anything, he said no. The chemo was taking its toll.

August 19: Let’s talk on Sat. night and see if I’m still alive and kicking.

August 22: The drug I’m adjusting to is too unpredictable to make plans.

September 7: Breathing issues. Please keep asking… hope to be able to say yes again someday.

September 20: I can’t talk.

Attanasio’s next text arrived on October 10—three days after he’d sent it. It was an invitation to the reception, the previous night, to his show “Game Over,” at the Kempner gallery. The text contained a picture of his “MAUSOLEUM” painting. I texted my apologies for missing the show.

He didn’t answer.

Attanasio began his ‘Sightings’ series in the 1980s. Each of these text-based works describes a banal moment, witnessed by Attanasio, in the life of a New York art-world “superstar.” On occasion, he was able to sell one to its subject. Image courtesy of Jim Kempner Fine Art and the Robert Attanasio Estate.

That evening, a Saturday, I walked over to the Kempner gallery and went to the lower level, where Attanasio’s paintings, all text-based, hung on the wall. In the middle of the room was an invalid’s toilet, the kind you’d see in a hospital or nursing home. I winced. It was a typical Attanasio touch, I thought: poignant, darkly funny, disturbingly grim.

“Was Robert here for the opening?” I asked the young man sitting behind the reception table.

“Yeah, he was in a wheelchair.”

“I knew him from college,” I said. “We worked together on the school newspaper.”

“Did he do this kind of stuff?” He motioned towards the paintings on the wall.

“No, he was more of an underground cartoonist. He did this weird freaky shit… R. Crumb–inspired.”

“I’m not surprised.”

I walked out of the gallery, feeling sick—the invalid’s toilet had gotten to me. Turning right on 23rd Street, I stopped at the Half King and looked through the window at Attanasio’s regular table, Number 16. Nobody was sitting there. I dialed his number, got his voicemail. “I’m sorry I missed the show,” I said. “I wanted to be there. The text came late. I don’t know what happened. But I just came from the gallery and I saw everything. And it affected me the way it was supposed to. I can assure you I feel the proper level of despair. I’d like to see you again… ” My voice trailed off.

I sent him a follow-up text on Friday afternoon, October 16: Up for any communication?

He responded within minutes: Everything in flux. (and it sux) will be in touch again Soon

VI: Elegy

On Saturday, December 19, the next-to-last day Sound Camera Rotation was playing, my wife, Mary Lyn, and I headed over to the Junior Projects gallery, on Norfolk Street. As we walked, I was thinking about the e-mail Attanasio had sent me out of the blue, in February, and I wondered if it really had anything to do with the Charlie Hebdo attack—or with his having reread my Lennon book. I was not a hard person to find and he could have gotten in touch at any time, like in 2000, when he’d first read Nowhere Man. And I wondered if he unconsciously knew, in February, that something was wrong, that a cancer was growing in his body, quietly, insidiously. Did he have a sense that he was facing the beginning of the end—that 2015 might be his last year on Earth—and feel a need to reach out across the decades to reconnect with somebody he never should have lost touch with, somebody who could bear witness to what was about to happen and put it in the proper context of what had begun 44 years earlier, on OP, an experience that changed the trajectory of both our lives? Was he reaching out to a writer he thought might tell his story the way he wanted it told?

One of Attanasio’s ‘Teen-Wise!’ comic strips from OP, February 4, 1971. Image courtesy of Robert Rosen.

“Why do you call him Attaneesio?” Mary Lyn asked. “His name’s Attanasio.”

“That’s how I’ve always pronounced it. That’s what everybody called him in college. A couple of people called him ‘Sneezy’ ’cause it rhymed with ‘neesi.’”

“Didn’t he ever correct you?”

“No. The only thing he ever complained about was when I misspelled his name with a double ‘s’: Attanassio. He asked me why I put an ‘ass’ in the middle of his name.”

The gallery was a tiny storefront with a half-dozen folding chairs, the windows covered with brown wrapping paper to keep out the light. The film, in black and white, was projected on a small screen. Two other people were there, a woman and child, and they left as the film ended and began anew—an endless 11-minute loop.

And there he was, as alive as ever, Attanasio, the auteur, as I remembered him from City College—an emerging talent on a low budget, crazy-long black hair a frizzy cloud around his head, standing in front of the Guggenheim with his big camera and barking impatient orders at the sound woman. He knew what he wanted, wanted it done right—a control freak in hippie drag.

The point of the film was to mimic the Guggenheim’s spiral structure by spinning in place, by taking a cab around the block. And just as The New Yorker said, it’s funny when Attanasio flips out because he thinks the camera’s going to run out of film. This was elegy as it should be—when the dead make you laugh, when you can watch the person, young and vital, and it seems impossible that he could ever be dead.

When it was over, I stuck my head in the back room and introduced myself to Lance Goldsmith, the gallery owner, who was typing on his computer. I told him I knew Attanasio from college. “I sent him a text the other day and he didn’t answer. So I Googled him and found the New Yorker review. That’s how I found out he’d died. I didn’t think he’d go that fast.”

“Nobody did,” Lance said.

“What happened to all his stuff—his films, his paintings?”

“People from the Anthology Film Archives cleaned out his apartment and took everything… There was a lot.”

That night I e-mailed Lance’s contact at the AFA, asking if I could take a look at Attanasio’s collection.

His film and video collection is “very large,” came the reply, and no, I couldn’t see it. “Our collection areas are not open to the public.”

I imagined an enormous room, like the one in the final scene from Citizen Kane, filled with Attanasio’s creations and collections, a camera panning over his Virgin Marys, crucifixes, text-based paintings, piles of videotape, reels of film, and stacks of OPs. But there’s no Rosebud, no buried secret (and no furnace). With Attanasio, the unconscious is the visible, as it always was.

And so this, I think, is what Attanasio wanted me to do: write a story. This, then, is his long-delayed obituary, his way of letting everybody, especially the people from City College and OP, know that Robert Attanasio, artist and provocateur, has died.

I wish he were here to read it.

This story was revised to reflect the following corrections: Robert Attanasio was employed by the Cohan Gallery. The Anthology Film Archive took only Attanasio’s film and video collection.

Attanasio in front of the Guggenheim Museum, in New York City, from his 1977 film, Sound Camera Rotation. Image courtesy of Lance Goldsmith

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