Modern Love

Gary Indiana has told the story of his life with many of the legendary parts cut out.

Gary Indiana. I Can Give You Anything But Love. Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2015.

Empires like to make little monuments to the cultures they swallow. The British Museum collects Pakistani slippers; juju masks from Cameroon are exhibited in France. And in 1993, New York University opened a bright new archive in its Fales Library: the Downtown Collection.

It was, among other things, a tribute to the bohemia that NYU had happily destroyed. For years, the university — a real estate imperium — had hacked away at the tangle of establishments and apartment buildings in Greenwich Village and beyond. By the early ’90s, it was far from alone. Developers everywhere joined forces with police to take revenge on a city they felt they’d lost to perverts and the poor. Minorities were banished to Harlem and the outer boroughs; the young men, to prison. And the white artists of lower Manhattan, their cachet dwindling and their numbers slashed by AIDS, found themselves shipwrecked in this sloshing new city, clinging to rent control.

The mood grew foul. It was clear that something — something called Downtown — had been stamped out. So a loose clique of painters, novelists, performers, filmmakers, punks — pallbearers of the avant-garde — began to root around their lofts, snatching up whatever seemed significant. Personal effects took on the zombie glow of the archive. Sketchbooks, manuscripts, photographs; collages, journals, letters. Boxes stuffed with ephemera, flotsam of a life lived on the so-called fringe, were packed up and sold to NYU, to be rather spookily enshrined as one’s “papers.” The Richard Hell Papers. The Lynne Tillman Papers. The David Wojnarowicz Papers. Downtown was dead. Now it could be embalmed.


To view the Gary Indiana Papers, you must first make an appointment with Fales. Copies can be made for fifty cents per page. Scans cost $15. Books and journals are brought out with priestly ceremony and propped on a Styrofoam cradle, their pages gently parted and weighted by braided ropes.

This is all sharply ironic, of course, because Indiana has groaned for years that there was no such thing as Downtown. The word was a fetish, a slur — a “punitive construct” dreamed up by the New Yorker to mark anyone who baffled the upper middle class. Yes, there were artists and writers doing striking things in the Village and on the Lower East Side. Yes, many of them carried themselves with a lip-jutting insouciance that seemed, in a way, punk. But it was never a movement, and only barely a “scene.” As Indiana notes in Last Seen Entering the Biltmore (2010):

I moved to New York permanently (or so I thought) in 1978, from Los Angeles, and after a brief spell of living uptown, gravitated to the regions below 14th Street where, often to my regret, my early efforts as a poet/impres­ario/playwright caused me to be stereotyped for decades as a “downtown writer,” a meaningless term which many people still like to blather, though I never, in fact, wrote much of anything specific to “downtown” Manhattan.

A valid protest, but that last bit is false. Indiana was the art critic for the Village Voice, a house organ for Downtown, and three of his novels take place “below 14th Street,” all dotted with familiar Downtown figures. Alas, he was in and of that milieu, but his resistance is touching — and telling. By now, it’s a classic posture: Indiana the disputer, Indiana the sansculotte, Indiana the gritty homosexual rascal of American letters who finds himself within spitting distance of the bourgeoisie. That at age 65 he finally wrote a memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, portends a reckoning of sorts: a summa of those “early efforts,” or at least a proclamation as to what Downtown was or wasn’t. But Indiana has told the story of his life with many of the legendary parts cut out. The book is, for the most part, about his life before New York, and flouts the conventions of the writer’s memoir. No gilded memories of this or that fateful encounter; no smug retellings of visitations by the Muse; no hints as to how or why he wrote what he did.

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