“Bodies of Work,” essays by Kathy Acker

Bodies of Work, essays by Kathy AckerBodies of Work, essays by Kathy Acker. Serpent’s Tail, 1997. Reprinted with an Afterword by Cynthia Carr in 2006, 179pp $16.00 ISBN 1852424850

A review by George Leonard.

When Kathy Acker died, the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State did something that I’d never seen before: they covered the wall of one corridor with a collage of pictures, notes, testimonials of homage and grief. Such was the passion that this unlikely poetic diva inspired. I only met her once, at a premiere of an Eleanor Antin film– a small, startling combination of piercings, muscles, and wild hair, unexpectedly gentle and affable for a woman working on Janis Joplin’s reputation.

The New York Times spoke of her “scarified sensibility, subversive intellect, and predatory wit… a writer like no other.” The Times Literary Supplement called her “fearless in seeking to destroy the unifying illusions of subjectivity and narrative.” Her publisher adds “post-modernist, feminist, post-punk, and plagiarist….” That’s a lot to live up to.

Someone reviewing George Orwell’s life work said cruelly but accurately, that after he had reached great fame with Animal Farm and 1984, he immediately did something “brilliant– he died.” Kathy Acker’s premature and terrible death by cancer is part of her legend.

These essays– often brilliant, generally “fearless” as the TLS claimed, even when they are not brilliant– offer us contact with a real person, not a legend. That’s their fascination. Some may prefer not to recover the “real” Acker; some may deny, like Peer Gynt unable to find the center of an onion, but only more and more layers, that there is any “real” Acker at all. Certainly Acker was as protean as her own myth. “For me, writing is freedom. Therein lies (my) identity, period… the excitement of writing, for me, is that of a journey into strangeness….”

Yet the non-fiction essays will enrich the fiction for her admirers. For one thing, so much that is known about Acker just isn’t so. No accounts of her as “post-punk diva” like to mention that, when Acker ran away from New York City to California, it was not to live on the streets but to teach Classical Greek as a TA at the University of California San Diego. Nor was it “the streets” of New York she was running away from but Brandeis, with a fine B.A. in lit. She became a grad student at San Diego and was trusted with a TA. Not only does none of that fit the image, it suggests too strongly to youthful admirers that some serious reading and scholarship will have to be done to become the next Kathy Acker. (Classical Greek!)

Her mass media obituaries (you can find them rehashed at her Wikipedia entry now, as if they were gospel) connected her with William Burroughs for the usual reason. His was the most famous name they encountered as an influence.

In these essays, Acker tells a different story.

Yes, Burroughs’s work was a distant example which helped her do in prose something of what the poets and visual artists around her were doing. They, however, not he, were her real influences. “When I was either twenty or twenty-one, and in San Diego,” she writes in the leading essay in this collection. “I apprenticed myself to David Antin. That is, I sat on his doorstep and babysat for his kid.”

David Antin, a potent New York City avant-garde figure, had made the journey from New York to San Diego before her, to establish at UCSD a center for the avant-garde arts. It included many rising stars, like Antin, a young but well-published critic and experimental poet from the 1960s New York City Pop era, whom the University of California was eager to hire away from the East. The most famous was undoubtedly Allan Kaprow, legendary creator of the “Happenings,” John Cage’s best pupil and one of the people who popularized Zen in America, as well as Pop Art. There was Antin’s wife, who would become the equally celebrated feminist artist and pioneer filmmaker, Eleanor Antin– when I mentioned her name to a class a few years back, a student was startled to learn she was alive! Eleanor’s name was already in some kind of song or poem (the “Foremothers”?) that this student had learned in a Women’s Studies course. But at the time, Eleanor Antin, though well-known, was considered a brilliantly perverse, notorious young artist who, like her contemporary Susan Sontag, was all the more intriguing for her dramatic physical presence.

Since the San Francisco Humanities Review exists to review in greater depth than the mass media can, I called the Antins, who are certainly the experts on Kathy Acker’s formative period. David Antin kindly sent this email (and much of the information in this review):

“Another important figure in the art department was our friend, the artist John Baldessari,one of Kathy’s earliest fans. Also, San Diego was the center of an avant-garde music scene with people like Pauline Oliveros and Ken Gaburo and a host of even wilder grad students like Peter Gordon, Ron Robboy and Ned Sublette, who used to attend my semiotics class wearing a thrift shop evening gown. There was a wonderfully wild and untamed scene that drew from experimentation in all the arts.”

Not all were at UCSD, Cal Arts was nearby, but all clung together in an East Coast, largely New York Jewish (like Kathy from Brandeis, the great Jewish university) expat community living on the wild hillsides of San Diego’s almost uninhabited Northern outskirts. It was 1971 or 72. No yuppies, no suburbs. No lights. At night you saw stars, and heard coyotes. The golden hills above the cliff-walled beaches were populated by surfers living in trailers, retired Navy men with flagpoles outside their bungalows, and– fading north toward Camp Pendleton– Marines, ex-Marines, more surfers, and hippies living out in the brush itself, including for a while, Charlie Manson and his clan. The Antins, who in New York were still part of Warhol’s and Cage’s sophisticated groups, lived, he recalls, “in a shambly stucco and tile house hanging on the bluffs over the Pacific surf. It had a terrace on the bluff from which you could watch whales or look a seagull in the eyes.”

This led to closeness. All kinds, including the kinds Kathy became celebrated for. Certain names recur in these essays, but I’d rather not hazard identifications, for prudishness has descended on the universities again, and sometimes the bodies in “Bodies of Work” are actually bodies very much at work: “I reach over Peter so my mouth is on his nipple… Other times I stick my right hand third finger into Eddie’s asshole… He bucks and looks at me with surprise…. Openness makes me open.” (121)

Looking back at the Sexual Revolution as it broke out in Southern California, there is a Heart of Darkness quality to it– only joyful. Heart of Lightness, then? Out there on the golden cliffs with the whales and the coyotes, these young Eastern artists and grad students, freed of their families and communities and all inhibitions, slipped outside civilization and started rampaging out there in the sexual wilds. Picture Kathy going awol in San Diego, like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. There were a host of younger people who would become, like Acker, important artworld figures– novelist Mel Freilicher, later her best friend; the grad student universally called “Acker” whom Kathy would marry; conceptual artist in training Martha Rosler; poet and linguistic student Lenny Neufeld, who happened to be Martha’s husband, and with whom Kathy ran away; avant garde composer Peter Gordon, whom she ran to, after running away from Lenny and coming back to San Diego; Allan Kaprow’s disciple and biographer, Jeff Kelley; feminist star Judy Chicago; Heng Liu, new from China, who would become America’s most famous “Asian American” artist.

The Antins showed some openness themselves in accepting her as their “favorite babysitter.”

“Blaise, David’s kid, and I got along great,” Acker tells us. “Our favorite game was Criminals; a sample question, “would you rather hold up a small bank in Kentucky or poison a rich creep who’s already dying?” “MAKE IT NEW.” “I wanted to be a writer; I didn’t want to do anything else, but I couldn’t find my own voice…. I hated my fathers.” (9)

So to find her voice– and, she at least subconsciously suggests, a new father– she had fled Brandeis for San Diego, to join David Antin’s family virtually as an older sibling, re-parenting herself with both Antins, and re-inventing herself in the bizarre new world of near-Mexican sunlight and wild manzanita hillsides.

This reviewer ran away from the New York City Pop world to the same place about then, and I cannot exaggerate the culture shock– and the corresponding closeness it promoted among the isolated Eastern expats Acker lived with, and whom I also knew. It was still a world of blond “Iowans” who talked like Gidget. At Coco’s restaurant in nearby Newport Beach, symbolically, there was only one flavor of ice cream: vanilla. (“But if you want chok-lit, I could pour Hershey’s on it?”) To eat pizza, you had to drive to the Italian restaurant next to Disneyland. If you looked for Jewish food at the supermarket, you found it in the “International” aisle next to taco shells.

But the resulting loneliness abolishes hierarchies. By comparison, my student Michael Ohlsson ran away to China, and a few days ago, taking his sister to visit the Great Wall, ran into Shaquille O’Neal. In America he wouldn’t get within camera range of Shaq, but in China, it was “let’s hang out.”

The New York expats clung together mentally and (as Acker’s selection above indicates) physically. One had “access”– every kind of access. It was still the Sexual Revolution. As Cynthia Carr accurately says, in an afterword to Bodies of Work, whatever the narrator’s name is in a Kathy Acker novel, it is always “one voice raging– obscene, cynical, bewildered, demanding to fuck.” Nobody would ever dare to tell Kathy Acker that she was “objectifying” herself.

But this was a great environment in which to learn from the best, you and them, just expats huddling together. Turn from the “one voice raging” stuff about sticking fingers up assholes to Acker’s essays, and one meets a rational, fully-developed aesthetic:

“I was taught by Conceptualists” whose foundational figures were available to her at UCSD, “that all that matters in art, in the making of art, is intention, intentionality. To use Zen language,” she continues, and I see Allan Kaprow’s spirit hovering in the background, “one should not mistake the finger that points at the moon for the moon. That all that does not concern intention is simply prettiness; that prettiness, is, above all, despicable.”


Only when one balances that rational, educated voice against the “one voice raging,” do we see Kathy Acker. In terms she would have approved, there is an Apollonian Acker as well as a Dionysiac, and she is only understood as the tension between the two.

The Antins are famous in their own right, and do not correct the William Burroughs stuff. (Nor was Kathy their most famous student.) But, although she wouldn’t admit it, it was Eleanor Antin who was probably Kathy’s hero, as much as David.

Essay 16 in this collection is the title essay, “Bodies of Work,” and it describes Acker’s bodybuilding– an art of her own body. There are references to Elias Canetti, to Wittgenstein, to Heidegger, for godssake. Harold Bloom says the artist would rather invoke a false influence on herself, than the real one. What’s missing from the essay is a much closer influence than Wittgenstein on a young woman making an art of bodybuilding– one of Eleanor Antin’s most famous pieces, “Carving: a traditional sculpture,” in which Antin had herself photographed nude each day of a crash diet, back and left and right profiles, while she dieted, sculpting her body. “At that time Elly was notorious, rather than famous as she is now,” Antin cautions me to remember. How notorious? To put “Carving” in contemporary context, on TV I-Dream-Of-Jeanie’s bellybutton was considered too overtly sexual to be shown, and when Cher’s bellybutton became visible on Sonny and Cher, it caused an uproar, a national pornography debate. Eleanor role-modeled Kathy’s future career as Notorious Woman Artist. Kathy saw first-hand how a smart woman artist could manipulate her physical presence to create a success d’ scandale; and then she helped with the 100 Boots, no less controversial. “Elly’s one woman show at MOMA in 1973 of the whole 100 Boots series was so shocking to MOMA’s photography department that its curator, John Szarkowski, tried to block it and had to be overruled by Bill Rubin, the senior painting curator, on the grounds that the cards were not photography but conceptual art.”

Often Acker’s works seem to transpose to the literary world performance acts that Eleanor Antin and other women artists had been creating a decade earlier. And why shouldn’t Acker transpose them? Acker believed in the work, not the originality of the artist.

Certainly it was Eleanor Antin who gave Kathy Acker her launch. When Kathy returned to San Diego to live with Peter Gordon, from about 1971 to 73, Eleanor Antin was working on her now very famous 100 Boots project, mentioned above, in which 100 empty boots go marching around the world as if they were having adventures– impossible to describe, really, the way a Christo “wrapping,” if you’ve never seen one, is impossible to describe. At least one new image was mailed out to a mailing list of 1000 people in the avant garde world no less often than once a month, and Kathy and Peter helped her with the two of the mailings when Elly was down with the flu. When Kathy decided to undertake her Black Tarantula series, learning from Eleanor, she decided to distribute it as a mail work. Eleanor Antin magnanimously turned over to Kathy the invaluable 100 Boots mailing list of the thousand influential artworld people who had already gone for such a concept from Eleanor Antin. Through that mailing list– and, though they do not say so, through the Antins’s influential patronage– “Kathy became the darling of the art world before she was the darling of the literary world,” Eleanor Antin remembers.

San Diego was too close, too familial. Kathy went to San Francisco, to New York. No more working in sex shows. The Antins, long distance, arranged a job for her teaching Greek at the Walden School to help out. Eventually, she wound up in London– about as far from San Diego in all ways as you can get. These essays were originally collected there.

“Through over a dozen works of fiction and one scandalous play, Acker set out to remake the canon,” Cynthia Carr writes in her Afterword, “hacking her way through great novels and great dramas, ” rewriting famous plots with new versions of familiar characters– a “quasi-Pip” in her “post-Dickensian Great Expectations.”

That takes some explanation, but you won’t find it in the literary world. Think “collage.” The game she had been playing with Blaise Antin was based on the exercise his father had given her in a unique creative writing course. Adapt principles of collage to literature. Use the old, but make it new, make it your own. “I’m not vs. creative writing,” Antin later explained. “I’m vs. self-expression.” Or as Acker says in the introduction to these essays, “I’m hoping communication cannot be reduced to expression.” (viii) Kathy, David Antin laughs, “went on to create an ideology of plagiarism.”

She found an audience for it; became notorious, then famous; went into body-building; was diagnosed with cancer.

She came back to the Antins when she was dying– she died across the border from San Diego in a Tijuana clinic, trying a last ditch quack cure, which, at least, gave her hope to the last. I called the Antins to research this piece. Eleanor Antin grimly remembered the “appalling border traffic” which made their weekly trips down to see the dying Kathy “a psychotic experience.” I asked Eleanor Antin to verify or correct certain things I’d read about Kathy Acker. Eleanor was deeply puzzled by my question about Kathy’s “bisexuality.” I had to explain I’d read some criticism that claimed her as a lesbian. Sure, Kathy tried everything, Eleanor finally ventured, but she was “basically straight.” Pause. “Almost entirely straight!”

The Antins talked about the odd ways in which a woman they’d watched grow up, flourish, and pass away, had been transformed into the icon I’d seen on the impromptu wall shrine made up for her at San Francisco State, an image so different from the real woman (a smart woman, educated, a Classical Greek scholar, “widely read in several languages,” as David added); a woman one can now meet in these valuable essays. David reflected, “When we construct a constellation, the farther you are from the stars, the closer they look to each other.”

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