THE PROVOCATEUR Iby Robert Rosen
Part I: The Offended
I found out Attanasio was dead on December 16, 2015, from a review of one of his movies on the New Yorker website. Sound Camera Rotation, made in 1977 but now being shown at an art gallery on the Lower East Side, was “witty” and “a slapstick gem,” the critic said.
What a great review, I thought as I began reading, amazed that the film was suddenly getting so much attention. I also wondered why my old friend hadn’t invited me to the opening—until I read the last sentence: “The show turned unexpectedly elegiac: Attanasio died last month, after a brief illness, at the age of sixty-three.”
I’d known his cancer was terminal but hadn’t realized—or wanted to realize—how aggressive it was. The last time Attanasio and I had communicated, by text in mid-October, he said that he didn’t feel strong enough to have me visit or even to talk on the phone, and that it was impossible to make plans. The effects of his medication were too unpredictable.
He’d died on Friday, November 13, a day I remembered well—it was the day terrorists massacred 130 people in Paris.
I hadn’t heard the news about Robert Attanasio because we no longer had any mutual friends; nobody I knew from City College was still in touch with him. When he first e-mailed me, in early February 2015, nearly 30 years had passed since we’d last seen each other. We hadn’t had a falling out. We’d just drifted apart.
His e-mail, with the subject heading “CCNY etc.” said: Rosen! It’s Attanasio! Are you in NY? Was flipping through Nowhere Man the other day (again) and thought “fuck man, I wonder how Bob’s doing.” We must meet sometime… —Robert
My John Lennon bio had been out for 15 years and he was just getting around to acknowledging it now? That couldn’t have been the real reason he’d gotten in touch. The more likely reason, I thought, was the Charlie Hebdo Paris attack, which had occurred three weeks earlier, when two brothers, inspired by ISIS, slaughtered a dozen people on the staff of the satirical French newspaper for publishing cartoons of Mohammed. I’d posted about it on my blog, elaborating on a story involving Attanasio (though not mentioning him by name) that I originally told in Beaver Street, my book on modern pornography.
At City College, in the 1970s, he and I had worked together on the “radical” student newspaper Observation Post—OP, as it was known—which I described in Beaver Street as a “blunt instrument primarily used to test the limits of the First Amendment… a student-funded incubator for an emerging punk sensibility soon to burst into full flower… an anarchist commune whose members performed improvisational experiments with potent images and symbols designed to provoke, or to ‘shock the bourgeoisie.’”
“We could have flown our freak flag under the Charlie Hebdo slogan, journal irresponsible (irresponsible newspaper),” I said in the blog post.
In those days Attanasio was a cartoonist—an R. Crumb disciple whose penis frescos adorned the walls of the OP office and whose drawings were sometimes used to illustrate my stories. A typical Attanasio illustration ran with a piece I wrote about a kangaroo court at a summer camp where an outcast camper is put on trial for “being a fag” and has Bengay rubbed into his genitalia as punishment. Obsessed with Christian imagery, Attanasio portrayed the boy lying in a position reminiscent of crucifixion, surrounded by a mob wielding tubes of liniment as if they were spears.
Attanasio also had a flair for the pornographic and an unerring ability to provoke our publisher, the Student Senate, to cut off OP’s funding. One such suspension was the result of OP publishing two full pages of his drawings featuring spread vaginas and enormous erect penises. Justifying its decision, the Student Senate’s president said of Attanasio’s artwork, “It’s only fit for a bathroom wall.”
But it was his nun cartoon that proved to be the defining moment of his career (and our relationship).
In early 1974, after stepping down as editor, I was given independent control of a new OP section, which Attanasio and I had come up with, in part as a showcase for his art. We called it “Mind Ooze,” and his first submission was a sketch of a nun masturbating with a crucifix. He’d drawn it two years earlier, he said, as a response to “sadistic nuns” in Catholic school who’d beat him for things like sitting improperly during Sunday mass. One nun, he remembered, had slapped him on the side of his head so hard, his ears rang for hours afterward. Though other editors had refused to publish the nun drawing, I agreed to run it as a stand-alone cartoon. Why not allow him to publicly express his well-earned discontent with what he believed was a Catholic Church, fundamentally evil at its core? When I look back on this decision, 43 years after making it, I now wonder if Attanasio’s attitude was fueled by a lot more than nuns’ slapping him around.
It wasn’t widely known, in 1974, that parish priests had been raping children (the number was put at approximately 3,000 when the story came to light, in 2002), that the Vatican had been covering it up since the 1950s, and that this abomination flowed like poison through the entire Catholic hierarchy. It now seems possible, even likely, that an artistically sensitive child like Attanasio intuitively understood that on the other side of certain closed doors other children were being subjected to something even worse than what was happening to him—and perhaps the combination of abuse and this knowledge, conscious or otherwise, was so traumatic it inspired much of his art, which, in retrospect, could be interpreted as a symptom of PTSD.
The reaction to the nun cartoon was immediate, on and off campus.
“They have a nerve to put Our Lord in their smutty newspaper,” said the president of the Newman Club, a Catholic student organization. The club then dispatched letters of protest and copies of OP to the New York governor, senators, and state senators.
Declaring the cartoon “the most debased expression of religious prejudice and obscene scurrility ever printed in any newspaper, student or otherwise”—which Attanasio took as a rave review—the executive director of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights also sent letters of protest to assorted politicians and to the New York district attorney.
Amidst the flood of hate mail, anonymous and otherwise, that poured into the OP office, the highest-profile denunciation of the nun came from New York’s junior senator, James Buckley (who was William F. Buckley’s brother, but should not be confused with James Buckley the co-founder of Screw). Calling it “a vicious and incredibly offensive anti-religious drawing,” Buckley demanded the expulsion of the students responsible, the censoring of every college newspaper in America, and a Justice Department investigation of OP to “protect the civil liberties of all students who are offended by pornography.”
Attanasio, reveling in the power of his art to enrage, was contemptuous in the face of this withering criticism. “Fuck Buckley!” he told anybody who asked. “Who is he, the junior senator from the Vatican?”
But Buckley’s line of attack had provoked a state senator from Staten Island, John Marchi, to introduce a bill that would ban the use of student activity fees to publish undergraduate newspapers. This, in turn, provoked a full-blown crisis and a relentless stream of press inquiries that I was ill prepared to deal with—no, I didn’t want to go on TV and debate Channel 5’s resident right-wing lunatic, Dr. Martin Abend. Instead, one of the longtime editors, a veteran of the 1960s campus uprisings and well versed in the art of media relations, handled the press. Pleading “satire” and “naïveté,” he expressed regret for the fact that some people took one artist’s highly personal statement about religion and sexuality as a malicious attack that demeaned “an entire system of belief.” He also said he regretted that the Newman Club had literally made a “federal case” out of the nun, resulting in “repressive legislation” and “ridiculous statements by politicians.” And he refused to print a retraction or apology. “We cannot recall 10,000 copies of OP and scrub them clean,” he noted, infuriating the offended even more.
As the crisis reached hurricane force, The New York Times ran an editorial, “Dollar Censorship,” defending OP and all the student press in the name of the First Amendment. And just as suddenly as Marchi had introduced his bill, he said he’d withdraw it if a watchdog committee were formed to ensure that student newspapers throughout the city and state university systems wouldn’t use student activity fees to publish “objectionable material.”
A watchdog committee was thrown together on the fly, Marchi withdrew his bill, and as if by magic the sound and fury went into remission—for four years, until 1978. That was when the new OP editor—so impressed by the outrage the nun had wrought that this was the primary reason she’d joined the newspaper—decided to pay tribute to the cartoon (and unwittingly demonstrate that the so-called watchdog committee had stopped watching anything a long time ago).
We were living together at the time, this editor and I, and she, a topless dancer by profession, asked if I knew an art photographer who’d be willing to shoot an explicit re-creation of the cartoon, starring herself as The Nun, for “personal use” only, she said.
I did know such a photographer, a former OP editor, and with Attanasio’s blessing, I arranged the shoot. A year later, when we were no longer living together, my former girlfriend, in her last act as editor, ran those photos in OP, including one on the cover, thus provoking the disciples of Reverend Sun Myung Moon to burn 10,000 copies of the paper on the City College campus; the New York City Council to threaten to gut the budget of the entire City University system unless something was done about OP; the Board of Higher Education to demand the criminal prosecution of the editors on obscenity charges; the City University chancellor to publicly apologize to New York’s archbishop, Cardinal Cooke; and the CCNY student body to vote to cut off OP’s funding once and for all, thus ending the paper’s 32-year run.
And Robert Attanasio, who by then had put aside cartooning for filmmaking and painting, had all the inspiration he’d ever need to devote the rest of his life to creating art that pissed off the power elite in whatever segment of society they might reside. Not only was it fun, but in later years it would, on occasion, prove to be profitable as well.
“I’ve been thinking about you since Charlie Hebdo,” I replied to his e-mail, saying that back in our day, it had never occurred to us that the Vatican would dispatch a death squad to City College.
We agreed to meet the next day, February 3, in Chelsea, at the Half King, a bar next door to the gallery that represented him. He said he’d be at his regular table, Number 16, by the window.
“Are we going to recognize each other?” I asked.
The last time I’d seen Attanasio, in 1986, we barely had a chance to say more than hello. I’d gone to the sold-out screening of his short film Reagan: Due Process, part of a series at the Millennium Film Workshop. In that film, as best I can remember, he manipulated footage of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, running it back and forth at regular speed, fast speed, and slow motion, adding weird visual and sound effects. Unabashedly fascinated by images of a president being struck by the bullet of an insane would-be assassin—John Hinckley, who’d wanted to impress Jody Foster—Attanasio, a dozen years after City College, was displaying the same sensibility I’d first seen in his OP cartoons and early student films, like the one in which a mutual friend had masturbated on and then saluted an American flag.
Part II: Still Crazy After All These Years
Gone were the waist-length black hair and full beard that so distinguished him in college. Instead: gray buzz-cut and an artfully sculpted soul patch. But there he was, waiting for me, drinking a beer at a table in the Half King’s back room—Table 16 wasn’t available. We recognized each other instantly. He waved and stood up as I approached.
“Bob,” he said.
“Attanasio,” I said. I never called him Robert. And I always pronounced it Attaneesio.
We embraced, sat down, ordered more beer and a quesadilla, and he began telling me about his job as an art handler at the Cohan gallery—he hung other people’s paintings and set up their installations. I told him I was doing freelance production work for a magazine, and as we talked about the near impossibility of earning a living wage from art or writing anymore—my dearth of Twitter followers was humbling; he didn’t “fucking tweet” at all—it felt as if our conversation had picked up where we’d left off, in 1974, in the aftermath of the nun, just before I’d graduated from City College, when I was seeing Attanasio on a regular basis.
I was taking a fiction-writing workshop that term with Joseph Heller, who hated the satirical stories I submitted about bestiality and necrophilia (an outgrowth of my OP “Mind Ooze” nonsense). His criticism of my work was so brutal (and accurate), more than 40 years later I still find it too painful to read all of his comments. But Attanasio didn’t care what the Great American Novelist thought—he liked my stories, and he always asked to read them before I turned them in. “Let me see it before Heller defiles it,” he’d say, giving me the kind of unwavering support that kept me going at a time I was ready to quit the writing business before I’d begun.
“You know,” he told me after we ordered another round, “I got death threats after publishing the nun.”
“Really? I’d forgotten… or maybe you never told me. We certainly got a lot of hate mail.”
“A hate group in Texas sent me a letter. They said they were coming to New York to kill me.”
“That’s why I didn’t use your name in Beaver Street. I just assumed you wanted to remain anonymous.”
“I appreciate that.”
As Attanasio sipped his beer, he launched into a story about the day John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to the film archive where he was working in the 1970s, looking for footage to use in one of Ono’s movies: “I treated Lennon like I’d treat anybody. I didn’t stare or fawn all over him or ask for his autograph… I found what he needed, he thanked me, and they left. I went to Ono’s exhibition at the Modern this afternoon. Have you seen it? Her freight train with bullet holes is amazing!” He then segued to one of his pet themes, the “whore artists, lying critics, pimp dealers, and pig collectors” who populate the art establishment, before winding up his monologue with a brief dissertation on his own guerrilla artwork, which he did under the alias Roberta Thorn. “Nobody knows who she is—she’s like Banksy!”
Then, like a man selling counterfeit watches on the street, he opened his paint-stained black raincoat, held together by a large safety pin, and displayed an inner pocket filled with a dozen colored markers. Taking out two of them and an adhesive mailing label, he proceeded to demonstrate the art of Roberta Thorn, coloring the label gold, waiting impatiently for it to dry, and then writing in red, “Curb Your Dogma.” He handed it to me.
“You haven’t changed at all,” I said. “Except for the hair. You’re still crazy after all these years. You realize, we’re the only ones from OP who are doing the same things that we were doing in college.”
“We’re spiritually rich.”
“That’s one way to look at it.”
We left the Half King and walked around the corner, to the Kempner gallery, which represented him, so he could show me one of his current paintings on display in the window, a “text-based work,” as he described it. In black against a gray background, like an omen, it said: “MAUSOLEUM.”
“You’ve come a long way from OP,” I said.
We crossed the street and he went down into the subway. He had to get back to Long Island City.
This story was revised to reflect the following correction: Robert Attanasio was employed by the Cohan Gallery and represented by the Kempner Gallery.
Video: The Madness of Art; Attanasio appears at the beginning
Main Image: top left and centre: Two classic Robert Attanasio drawings from a collage that ran in OP, December 21, 1972. The Student Senate president described them as “only fit for a bathroom wall.” top right: Attanasio’s first OP cartoon, from October 16, 1970, featuring a bound and gagged Richard Nixon. Images courtesy of Robert Rosen