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


On the evening of May 6, as Attanasio and I wandered down 10th Avenue in Chelsea, he stopped in front of a small gallery that had an innocuous landscape painting displayed in the window. Taking a black marker from his inside pocket, he discreetly scrawled on the window, in about one second, ‘This Art Sux Go to Another Gallery.’

I burst out laughing and said, “I know one other artist who’s almost as crazy as you are.”

“What do you mean?” He sounded suspicious, as if such a thing were impossible.

“I mean she’s pushing 80 but still parties like she’s 19 and smokes weed like a Rastafarian. She was my art director when I was doing the porn mags. Now she does porno paintings… and a lot of other stuff, too. You should meet her.”

He thought that was a good idea, so I called my former colleague and she said, “C’mon over.”

As we stepped into her Midtown loft, Sonja Wagner, wearing a torn, paint-splattered sweatshirt, like a counterpoint to Attanasio’s paint-splattered raincoat, took him by the arm and led him to a giant canvas of a classical-looking stop-motion triptych showing a large-breasted woman jacking off a well-hung man—a “boy-girl” as we used to call it in the biz. “This,” she said, “is Victoria and Mr. Big Cock.” Then turning towards the adjacent painting—a woman holding another woman’s erect nipple between her teeth—she said, “And this is Sucking Larissa. They’re both based on pictorials Bobby and I did for our filthy little magazines.”

‘Sucking Larissa’, by Sonja Wagner. Another from a series of paintings Wagner did based on layouts she designed for the pornographic magazines she art-directed for nearly 30 years. The original shoot was done by British photographer Steve Colby. Image courtesy of Sonja Wagner.


Sonja next guided Attanasio to her latest paintings, a series of abstract tornadoes ripping across the Kansas landscape, an ode to her Midwestern roots; then to her sculptures, twisted green and turquoise copper pieces etched with calligraphic squiggles; her Dead Blondes portraits, featuring Marilyn Monroe, JonBenét Ramsey, and Jayne Mansfield; and finally her Ruby Leggs series, miniature paintings showing the erotically charged New York adventures of Ruby, a pair of full red lips mounted atop long, shapely legs.

“Why aren’t you better known?” Attanasio asked. “I want to curate an exhibition of your work. I want to buy some Dead Blondes.”

‘No One Looks at Me Anymore’, by Sonja Wagner. From Wagner’s ongoing “Ruby Leggs” series of miniature paintings. This one shows Ruby in a New York City subway car. Image courtesy of Sonja Wagner.

“Darling,” Sonja said to me, “who is this hot man you’ve brought to my apartment?”

We sat down at the worktable in her studio as Sonja filled our glasses with vodka, fired up the first spliff of the night, and lit her and Attanasio’s cigarettes. Behind us, a TV tuned to MSNBC played with the sound off as Attanasio stroked Sonja’s gray cat, Lucretia, sitting on the table in front of him. “Oh, you beautiful creature,” he said to the cat.

I drank and smoked and listened to two artists traverse the jagged contours of their careers—one of Sonja’s tornado paintings was being used to decorate a house in Showtime’s The Affair; Attanasio reprised ‘The Nun’s Tale’. Then he turned to me and said, “I want to launch an art magazine like OP—write that down!”

“I’m not working tonight.”

“Then you’re fired!” Attanasio said.

“Who are you, Donald Trump?”

“OK, you’re hired. But you need to talk more.”

“I talk when I have something to say.”

“You’re fired!”

“I’m going to have to kill you,” I said.

He made a sweeping motion with his arm in the direction of Sonja’s art, which surrounded us, and told her, “You’re like Man Ray.”

I corrected him: “She’s Woman Ray.”

“You don’t talk much, but when you say something, you make it count,” Attanasio declared. He then pulled from his raincoat three colored markers and two mailing labels, and began drawing “Woman Ray” tags, one for each of us, mine a black panel against a red background, Sonja’s a red panel against a black background.

“Wait for it to dry,” I told him, seeing how anxious he was to write “Woman Ray” in white.

He waited, completed the tags, gave them to us.

‘Woman Ray’, by Robert Attanasio. One of the multitude of graffiti “stickers” Attanasio created under the pseudonym Roberta Thorn. Image courtesy of Robert Rosen.

Then, as the three of us stood at the door saying good night, Attanasio asked Sonja if he could tag her white wall with “Godd,” which he’d been scribbling on bus shelters throughout Chelsea.

She hesitated.

“Let him do it,” I said. “It’s like when Basquiat comes to your house and wants to write on the wall.”

“If I don’t like it, I’m going to paint it over,” Sonja warned him.

He tagged the wall with a black marker. It looked crude and out of place, like subway graffiti in the Halls of Rembrandt. Sonja would paint it over the next day.

Attanasio and I left, walking down 8th Avenue for a few blocks before calling it a night at 34th Street. When I got home, I found a text on my phone: You are so promoted!

May I have a raise, please? I inquired.


PART IV: Semi-private Cancer Room

The text from Attanasio, in response to my suggestion that we “grab a drink at the Half King,” arrived on Monday morning, June 15. It wasn’t what I expected:

I am fucked. Stomach lymphoma. Found out last Thurs. See my primary doctor today. My main thoughts are about wanting to finish a number of new works.

For lack of anything better to say, I asked him if there was anything I could do.

There wasn’t.

I went to visit him in New York–Presbyterian Hospital, on East 68th Street, on Sunday, July 5. In his semi-private room, evidence abounded of a multitude of visitors: the table by the window was piled precariously with books and boxes of food, to which I added a couple of magazines.

Attanasio didn’t seem sick—not at all. He was up and about, still buzzing with manic energy, cracking jokes about his nurse, who, he said, looked like André 3000, and still wearing his paint-stained raincoat held together with the safety pin. I asked him how he was doing and he laid it out methodically, without emotion: The cancer had begun asymptomatically. For years he’d had minor back pain, which he’d attributed to all the physical labor he did as an art handler. “Now it’s spread,” he said. “I’ve got tumors everywhere… It’s incurable.”

“There’s nothing they can do?”

He shrugged; he was waiting for more test results. One doctor had told him there was a possibility they could prolong his life with chemo, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to subject himself to that. He needed to have a will drawn up and was going to do that the following day; the hospital provided the service. “I have a little money in an IRA,” he said. “I want to see that an artist gets it.”

“What about your family?” I knew he had at least two brothers, one of whom was his twin.

He was estranged from them, he said—had never married, had no kids, and had just broken up with his girlfriend.

We walked to a lounge down the hall, sat on a leather couch looking out at the East River and the Triborough Bridge.

“I’d like to hang around this planet for a while longer,” he said. “I want to go to Cuba… and Marfa, Texas. I know people there. You know, the covers of your books really suck. I could have done a better job. Why didn’t you ask me?”

Taken aback, I answered defensively, “I had almost nothing to do with the covers… and I hadn’t heard from you in 30 years. Maybe you can do the cover of my next book.”

I regretted saying it the moment the words came out of my mouth—it would probably be years before my next book found its way into print.

Featured image (at top of article): Victoria and Mr. Big Cock, by Sonja Wagner. The painting is based on a pictorial Wagner designed for D-Cup when she was the magazine’s art director in the 1990s. The original shoot was done by British photographer John Lee Graham. Image courtesy of Sonja Wagner.

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