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Band of Outsiders: Williamsburg's Renegade Artists

billburg / Jan 01, 2002 12:00am

by Jeanne Storck

Before the factories of Williamsburg became painter's lofts, before the working class diners were converted into stylish eateries, Williamsburg was a community of laborers and immigrants where artists were the exception rather than the norm. Artists who lived here before Williamsburg became a creative community were faced with a rougher, drearier landscape and most ended up leaving these streets to seek inspiration elsewhere. Henry Miller, Joel-Peter Witkin, Andres Serrano and Jonas Mekas all passed time in Williamsburg and it's clear that the neighborhood's former industrial climate marked their creative vision, giving their work an edgier provocative quality.

Henry Miller grew up in the streets of Williamsburg, or the 14th Ward as it was called a century ago. He put Brooklyn on the literary map when he wrote about his childhood in this poor, immigrant neighborhood in such classics as Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring. Williamsburg was a different place 100 years ago—dirtier, more industrial, more working class—and the gritty street life made a deep impression on Miller:

"I remember, with a vividness as if it were etched in acid, the grim, soot-covered walls and chimneys of the tin factory opposite us and the bright, circular pieces of tin that were strewn in the street, some bright and gleaming, others rusted, dull, copperish, leaving a stain on the fingers; I remember the ironworks where the red furnace glowed and men walked toward the glowing pit with huge shovels in their hands.... I remember the black hands of the ironmolders, the grit that had sunk so deep into the skin that nothing could remove it, not soap, nor elbow grease, nor money, nor love, nor death." (Black Spring)

Miller was born in 1891 in Yorkville, Manhattan to parents of German origin. Not long after his birth, the family moved to 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg where Henry spent the earliest years of his life. The house is still there between Metropolitan Avenue and N. 1st Street, a three story tenement building that stands alone, surrounded on both sides by empty lots, looking somewhat forlorn. Miller shared three small rooms with his family in an oppressive atmosphere. His mother was a strict, domineering woman and his father, who worked as a tailor, was withdrawn, so to avoid the heavy air at home Miller escaped into the streets which were full of "accident and incident, drama, movement." In Black Spring, he paints a picture of these streets: the little burlesque house called the Bum, the saloons with swinging doors through which drifted "wild shrill laughter" or "the incense of gorgeous unknown bodies," the shanties, the ferries plowing back and forth across the waters of the East River, the bridge "against the sky like a harp," the war vessels lying "like sea monsters" in the Navy Yard, or the boys of the 14th Ward whose names ring out in his memory like the "names of gold coins...Rob Ramsay, Harry Martin, Johnny Dunne...."

Miller's experience of his childhood environment was physical, primal, as deeply ingrained in his being as the stains he described on the hands of the ironworkers—something he could not simply wash away. The scenes that passed before his childish eyes were forceful because they were new and unknown, and the fact that they were not scenes from an idyllic childhood but rather rough, working class dramas probably made Miller's childhood memories that much more forceful. Perhaps what Miller later attempted in his writing—the frank and graphic descriptions of sex, the emotional nudity—was an attempt to recapture that particular internal violence of his own first childish impressions. As a writer, Miller did not recoil from the harshness of the streets, the dirt, the coarseness, rather he embraced it, sought it out and found in it vitality and beauty. Years later, when he wrote about Williamsburg, he described his feelings this way:

"...the little neighborhood in Brooklyn which meant so much to me and from which I had been torn away too soon. I get a very definite feeling of it every time I see an Italian painting without perspective; if it is a picture of a funeral procession, for example, it is exactly the sort of experience which I knew as a child, one of intense immediacy. If it is a picture of the open street, the women sitting in the window are sitting on the street and not above it and away from it. Everything that happens is known immediately by everybody, just as among primitive people. Murder is in the air, chance rules." (Tropic of Capricorn)

Miller left Williamsburg in 1901 at the age of 10 when his family moved to Decatur Street in Bushwick. He returned occasionally to visit relatives still living in the neighborhood and as a teen attended Eastern District High School at Grand Street and Bushwick Avenue. Eventually Miller left Brooklyn for good, moving to Paris and later Big Sur, but he took with him visceral memories of the streets of Williamsburg that shaped the tone of his writing.

The famed, iconoclastic photographer Joel-Peter Witkin grew up in Greenpoint not far from the streets Henry Miller knew as a child in a neighborhood that in the 1940s and 50s was still largely working class and immigrant. Witkin is famous for his disturbing photographs of the human body, nudes that are contorted or deformed but whose very freakishness moves them beyond the realm of the grotesque into the sublime. The provocative elements in Witkin's work may well be rooted in his Brooklyn childhood.

Witkin was born in 1939 along with an identical twin brother, Jerome, to a Lithuanian Jewish father who worked as a glazier and an Italian Catholic mother. The Witkin family first lived on Frost Street, but when Joel-Peter was four, his parents divorced over religious differences; his father wanted the children to be raised Jewish while his mother insisted they be raised Catholic. Witkin's mother took the children and moved back to live with her parents at 460 Graham Avenue in a four-story tenement building that was owned by Witkin's grandfather but was later destroyed when the construction of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway tore through the center of Williamsburg in the 1950s.

Witkin's childhood was not easy. The family was poor and his mother worked as a bookkeeper in a DDT plant to make ends meet, finding a way even with her small means for Joel and Jerome to take art lessons. Witkin's father visited from time to time but was not a steady presence and Witkin must have sensed this loss, a loss which was rendered complete when his father was murdered.

The environment in the Witkin household was deeply Catholic and both Witkin's mother and grandmother were devout churchgoers. Joel-Peter, along with his twin Jerome, attended Saint Cecilia's School at 15 Monitor Street a few blocks from home and it was there that Joel-Peter was first steeped in the legends and images of the Catholic faith. As an artist, Witkin often alludes to Catholic iconography, offering his own transgressive versions of pietàs, martyrdoms and crucifixions. This interest in Catholic symbols started young. Witkin tells a story about his fascination with the crucifix on his grandmother's rosary:

"As a child in Brooklyn, my grandmother gave me permission to carry her rosary. I was so proud! Pointing to the hands and feet of Christ on the rosary's cross, I told her that when I grew up, I would work in a rosary factory and nail the body of Christ onto each cross. She smiled at me and we ate dinner." (Disciple & Master)

Joel-Peter envisions himself in a rosary factory where an assembly line of workers mass-produces the chain of links and beads and crosses that make up a rosary, blending in his mind the workaday industrial environment that surrounds him with his own somewhat violent spiritual fantasies. The young Witkin, like any Brooklyn child, imagines he might become a worker, but not just any worker—a spiritual craftsman, a forger of holy objects. And not a spiritually correct worker, for Witkin places himself in the uncomfortable position of the one who nails Christ to the cross, the one who commits the horrible, unthinkable act. Witkin's story of his grandmother's rosary inspired an image entitled "Still Life with Mirror" which is a haunting photograph of an amputated foot impaled with nails that pays homage to the crucifixion of Christ. Witkin's image could not be more real. He works with live flesh, an amputated foot recovered from a morgue, crucifying it himself, recreating the horrifying reality of an act that other artists might choose to obscure.

Witkin claims his quest to find meaning and beauty in deformity and death come from a childhood memory of a terrible accident. The story has been cited so many times in interviews and articles about Witkin that, true or not, it has taken on the status of myth.

"It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother's hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it—but before I could touch it someone carried me away."

Witkin does not shy away from horror, but embraces it with the frank curiosity of a child. It is as if in every one of his photographs he is in some way trying to relive the vivid emotion of this scene, trying to recapture its raw energy, that "intense immediacy" Henry Miller saw in the street life of Williamsburg.

Like Witkin, Andres Serrano is a Williamsburg-bred photographer known for his controversial images. Both photographers deal with difficult subjects—sex, religion, death, the body—but whereas Witkin's work is highly physical, with his negatives often being scratched and manipulated so that the final image has an almost painterly quality, Serrano's images are cleaner, colder, more distant. Shock is often at the core of Witkin's and Serrano's work, but if Witkin faces shock by meeting it with an equal physical intensity, Serrano neutralizes it by allowing it to dissipate in the language of abstraction and beautiful lines.

Serrano was born in New York in 1950. His father was a Honduran immigrant, a merchant marine who ended up abandoning his family in New York to return to the wife and family he left behind in Honduras. Serrano's mother was Afro-Cuban, a religious woman who didn't speak English and who suffered at times from psychosis.

Serrano lived in the Italian section of Williamsburg with his mother who was devoutly Catholic. He recalls that in his childhood apartment there were a few religious icons—a Madonna and a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but no crucifixes because his mother thought they were morbid—a fact that is interesting because Serrano's work often deals with highly morbid subject matter, but in a distant, stylized manner that makes the morbid seem beautiful.

As a young boy, Serrano would escape Brooklyn and head for Manhattan where he spent hours in the hallways of the Metropolitan Museum looking at Renaissance paintings, a fascination that led him at the age of 12 to decide to become an artist. At 15, he dropped out of high school but later enrolled in the Brooklyn Museum School where he spent two years studying painting. During this art training he became interested in photography and began shooting street scenes. For a period, he fell into drugs.

From the start, Serrano's creative work was provocative. He began his photographic career at the height of the AIDS epidemic, creating large, abstracted images of blood, semen and saliva, reminding viewers of the vulnerability of their own bodies. Next, he began photographing religious icons bathed in bodily fluids, the most famous of which is "Piss Christ" (1987), a crucifix suspended in a container of urine that sparked huge debate about art and censorship. He has created unflinching portraits of homeless people, Ku Klux Klansmen, nuns, priests, cadavers and nudes, searching for beauty in places most people wouldn't think of looking. Serrano claims: "In my work, I always seek the unusual, or at least what is not traditionally considered beautiful. In my work I try to find the normal in the strange and vice-versa." As a child in Williamsburg, Serrano probably had his first lessons in finding beauty in an environment that was not beautiful.

Jonas Mekas, the avant-garde filmmaker who founded Anthology Film Archives in New York, was born in Lithuania in 1922 and arrived in Williamsburg as a Displaced Person at the age of 27. He spent his first few years drifting though a series of cheap rooms and grueling manufacturing jobs. His diary, I Had Nowhere to Go, recounts his stay in the neighborhood—the dreariness of his working class life interspersed with flights into Manhattan to seek escape in movie theaters and art museums. Mekas paints a dark picture of local factory life:

"We have a thirty minute lunch break. There is a room here with dirty steel shelves to put our clothes. Here the workers chew their sandwiches, or they squat on empty barrels, their hands eaten by rust, and they shout, one louder than the other..."

In Mekas' diary, the geography of Williamsburg weaves itself into his private emotional landscape and some of the place names he mentions include Meserole Street, Lorimer Street, Grand Street, Bedford Avenue and Union Street. In addition to writing, Mekas made his first forays into filmmaking by documenting local street scenes with his Bolex camera. He later used the footage from this period in a piece entitled Lost Lost Lost (1976) that captures images of weddings, families at table, men talking in groups on the street, old Lithuanian immigrants sitting on park benches. Mekas' life in Williamsburg was bleak and in 1953, after three years in America, feeling isolated among the factory workers of Brooklyn, Mekas decided to move to Orchard Street in Manhattan, cutting ties with the Lithuanian immigrant community in order to dedicate himself full-time to film and to engage with the artistic community in New York.

Mekas' experience was different than that of Miller, Witkin or Serrano since he came to Brooklyn as an adult and his childhood memories were foreign, tied up in the history and culture of Europe. He did not have the primal attachment that artists born and raised in these streets carried with them. Mekas was doubly an outsider as both an artist and an immigrant and his descriptions of Williamsburg reveal this deep alienation.


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