A Story

A STORY
JACK WALLS

Robert Mapplethorpe was dead. I was back in Chicago moving on with my life when one summer in the early 90s people, in fact several people, approached me to tell me that I was in the Whitney Biennial that year. I insisted that I was not in the Whitney Biennial that year. They persisted that I was. It turns out that year I was in the Whitney Biennial. Through the courtesy of a black up and coming artist called Glenn Lignon backed up by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation as it turns out who gave him the permission to use my images without my consent, to be used as his art show exhibition during the Whitney Biennial in 1992. So, is this how it was going to be from now on? I asked myself.

After many years of putting it off, I began to make art. I felt as if my hand had been forced. My first one man show were the ADA collages, that was my tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe show at the FUSE GALLERY in the East Village in 2008. 2 years later in 2010 I had a second show at the FUSE GALLERY, ‘The Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn’, of an epic poem I had laboriously written over the past 2 years since my last show there in the East Village Gallery.

Even after these two shows, which were both smash successes, I was not accepted by the art world. I have always been on the outside.

Growing up in gangs, outsiders. In the Navy, I felt more like a pirate than anything else. The sailors I chose to hang around and to associate with on board the USS Ranger were the misfits and the outcasts, where I was most comfortable, I was then in my element.

Recently, I was contacted through social media by a writer from the Netflix series House Of Cards to do the story of my life as film. We’ve been working on this thing since around July 13, when we first arranged to meet in New York City, where he lived. Soon after that meeting he came up to Hudson, New York, were I live, and we spent the day working. I allowed him to walk away with a ton of my writings. My aborted autobiography I’d been working on prior to 9/11 ‘BLACK JACK’ and recorded interviews done while he was here in Hudson. All for the research, he’s 33. He knows that I have done this dance before. Been through all this before. Back in the mid 90s I wrote a script for a Patti Smith Robert Mapplethorpe movie called ‘Somebody’s Sins’. It was sold to Hollywood. It all went to hell, all was for naught. Now, over 20 years later I get contacted via social media by a 33 year old writer who’s somehow interested in this project all over again.

When the writer and I first met I liked him, his vibe. Our first meeting was in a bar, a party. So all my friends met him too. He seemed sincere, he asked intelligent questions, I thought. He’s heterosexual, which I was secretly relieved about. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because he’s approaching this on an intellectual level.

In the mid 90s, with my first go around with Hollywood. Most all the players, would be directors, producers, et cetera, were gay. I thought that I was in a good place. As it turned out I was not. The first thing they tried to do was to get rid of me and steal the project away. Much to their dismay, I refused to let this happen, which frustrated the studios out in Hollywood to no end.

It took awhile, but I moved on after the Hollywood debacle. It turned out to be an undisguised blessing. Because, it allowed me to move on and dig deeper into my own life. Patti Smith consoled and counseled me by telling me that I was sitting on a goldmine. It took me 2 years to understand, to understand what she meant by that, but when I finally let what she said sink in, it really sunk in. So I began to write my autobiography calling it ‘BLACK JACK’.

For awhile, I poured my heart and soul into these writings. Then 9/11 happened, which left my life, which rendered my life insignificant, I felt. So I abandoned writing and turned towards painting. I painted a series of American flags. New York City was wrapped in flags, after 9/11 there was no avoiding them back then. The American flag was everywhere. So I embarked on making my own series of flags.

Actually, I’d already done a series of flags back in the mid 80s in secret. I still had the mold for the stars which made the whole affair 3-D made from Plaster of Paris. The stripes were of paper mache, made the old-school way with flour and water. I executed these over a period of time when I’d briefly
fled back to Chicago in a fit of frustration. Those flags never made it back to New York.

In the art world I’m a marginal figure, an outsider. In my lifetime, I’ve looked from the inside out too. Going over these memories is not easy, sometimes I go blank. Other times, I can’t catch up with my thoughts, my memories. I tend to write in the morning, before the telephone starts to ring. My life story begins rather simple. I was born in Chicago, in Cook County Hospital. By the age of 12 I was in a gang. These were my formative years, the years that ushered me into a life of juvenile delinquency, into adventures that had as yet began to unfold.

I was attracted to Robert Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle because it was imbued with a particular dark edge. To me, his own photographs were like something beautifully shot from the underbelly of hell. Robert was a collector, he collected the works of other photographers as well as other things too. He had an exceptional eye. This appealed to me, all of this appealed to my sense of adventure. He stimulated my imagination and other things at the same time. I loved all his work, it wasn’t just the flowers.

Robert invited me to his auction, ‘Sotheby’s Photographs from the Collection of Robert Mapplethorpe’. Sam Wagstaff, Robert’s former lover and now dear friend and patron of the arts loved Robert dearly and everyday they spoke on the phone. They spoke of many things but mostly they spoke about photography. Later Sam collected silver but that was after he’d donated his photography collection to the Getty Museum out in Los Angeles, this was all before he died.
Wagstaff left his fortune to Robert. Sam was a millionaire, up until then he was the first millionaire I’d ever met. Incidentally enough, Sam and Robert came down with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome around the same time.

Writing for me is staying alive. I’m telling my side of the story before someone else does it for me. Now I also paint, from time to time I manage to sell a painting or two. I sell paintings in order to write. I also like to paint because it’s very meditative. For me, painting and writing are interchangeable, Jean-Michel and Rene Ricard understood this too.

I understand Duchamp and Man Ray and the ready-made, these I have explored at length, 3 of my ready-mades are: a pair of miniature boxing gloves called ‘CASSIUS CLAY,’ another is titled, ‘NEST’, and then there’s, ‘THE BRIDE STRIPPED BARE (Revisited 3x)’ these are collaborative works, executed with young sculptor Kris Perry, all made recently here in Hudson, New York.

After Robert died, I thought the art world thought that I would just go away, fade away, die from a overdose of heroin, or from something else. That something else would get me sooner than later. I think it was figured I wasn’t meant to last. Or at least, not this long. Robert also thought I didn’t stand much of a chance in the art world back in the 80s, that the cards were stacked against me. I feel this more today than then. Basquiat was the reigning black painter then, to me, he was the reigning painter period. I was making stuff, but quietly. Slyly leaving little drawings and collages and stuff lying around the house for Robert to accidentally see. I took to painting on canvas on Wednesday’s. During the week I worked at a clothes boutique in SoHo, my day off was Wednesday, so I painted. A friend, who had a small studio on Union Square invited me to share her studio space one day out of the week. I started doing these minimalists line paintings on canvas, the inspiration being military ribbons service men wore on their chests.These paintings were approximately 12×35 inches. Even though my boyfriend and lover was a mover and shaker in the art world I didn’t see myself taking advantage of that situation. The situation I was in was tenuous, to say the least. Not wanting to insinuate myself into conversations. Speaking about my art and myself, talking about, me. I felt this would have been embarrassing not only for Robert, but in the long run, for myself as well.

To be an artist is to be selfish, in the 80s I wasn’t selfish enough. Also, what I lacked was confidence. It took me years to develop confidence. In those days, people would ask me if I was an artist, I would say ’no’. Imagine that.

Although, I knew I was in a good place in the early 80s, learning from Wagstaff & Mapplethorpe. I was learning a lot because they were effectively my art school. I palled silently around with the two of them hearing their conversations, listening, and absorbing it all. Learning. Listening to their conversations over many dinners and social settings, on weekend get aways and trips abroad. Or sitting just the three of us in Sam Wagstaff’s penthouse apartment at One Fifth Avenue on Christmas Eve.

Christmas with Sam and Robert was always exciting, they did not skimp when it came down to gift giving. Sam would usually gift me something African, such as a mask (from his own personal collection of African masks) I still have several, which I cherish to this very day. Robert would usually give me a piece of art, a silver bracelet, a small drawing or a photograph that he knew I’d been admiring over the time leading up to Christmas Day. Every Christmas too there would be the brand new wallet filled with cash!

These were the happy years, before the approaching storm. Although, I was not happy. I felt the frustrations of being an artist that wasn’t an artist, quite yet. I knew the road to being an artist is long and hard. For Robert, I put away all these feelings, my creative impulses, I put on hold. I sat with Robert and Sam in their own little fiefdom, a rarefied realm that belonged to both of them, together. Sam and Robert dismantled the art world and reinvented it to their own design. It was intoxicating and heady business. Especially to watch it as it all happened.

Even still, I felt overwhelmed by inadequacies, how do I put myself out there and make my own way through the young art scene that was exploding around downtown? My own peers? My milieu? I imagined most people looking in on my lifestyle from the outside could view it as privileged, perhaps even spoiled. Running around with Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, and they’d be right. I was an artist’s model, recognizable to some walking down the street. Some would say they liked a picture that they’d seen of me that Robert had taken of me that they’d seen in a book or gallery show or museum exhibition.

Around this time I began to use heroin. I’d used heroin before ‘recreationally’ back in my gang banging days in Chicago in the 70s. It didn’t help matters that the drug of choice it seemed to all the downtown crowd was in fact heroin. It wasn’t even a stigma. It was fashionable, cheap, and easy to get too! Robert did not care for heroin. Also, he rarely drank. I saw him drunk maybe once, on champagne. He liked cocaine, but not in a gluttonous fashion, everything he did was elegant.

I felt I had to make a choice as to what I needed to do at this time. I was a part of the Mapplethorpe Studios but I never officially worked for them, though in hindsight I was a major part of the going ons there. In reality, I was really okay. But, I had my own little demons nipping at my heels. I was throwing up smokescreens that weren’t necessary. Inventing my own struggles. I continued to use and associate with other people caught up in the downtown drug scene.

The specter of AIDS had begun to rear it’s ugly head. Everyone talked about it all the time. People were getting it and dying from it very very quickly, the mood was ‘here today, gone tomorrow’. Robert had no desire to be monogamous, it wasn’t in his make up. We had a heated discussion about this. I felt as if I was caught in a downward spiral. We had to find another doctor because the one we went to regularly died from AIDS, he was an early casualty. The whole world was scrambling for a cure, but no one was coming up with an answer.

Meanwhile, I continued my slide into heroin addiction. Both Robert and Sam eventually died, first Sam, then Robert. I stayed in New York for nearly 2 years after that. But I couldn’t make a go of it. It was too hard. I was too weak, mentally and physically. I was at a loss. I crawled back to Chicago.

There, I revisited my past. I saw old friends, my family. My New York journey was over, the prodigal son had returned home, a failure. I checked into the Veterans Administration Hospital and detoxed off my addiction to heroin. I was back home again.