Today, October 5, would have been Al Hansen’s birthday.
I remember my first time visiting New York City, in my early 20s. It was exhilarating. Living in the New Jersey suburbs up to that point, I felt like I was finally in a world that accepted me, and all others who were ‘different.’
I remember saying to myself…”Finally, I’m home!”
As a young art student I couldn’t get enough of the museums, the galleries and the music. I fell in love with jazz as I spent evenings listening to live performances at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. At the time there was a one drink minimum. It was just before it became a fashionable and expensive place, and nearly impossible to get into.
I worked at a feminist newspaper somewhere in the city for awhile, and I don’t remember being more impressed by, and a little scared of my fellow employees. I had never met other women who used words so freely, written and verbally.
At the time I was also smitten with my former art professor and artist, Al Hansen, who introduced me to the bohemian culture in the downtown area of the city. Al recognized the artist in me, but he also saw that New York City would not be kind to a young woman who was so sensitive to energies.
And he was right. As time went on, I realized that, while I had some pretty progressive ideas, I was a country girl at heart.
But there was something about the city for me back then…maybe it was its pulse. I could really put my finger on that pulse, feel all the diversity, all the art, the music, all the creative energies. I would wander through the MOMA for hours, soaking in the Cezannes and the Hoppers. And the newer artwork created by radical women artists. Metal shaped into vaginas and breasts and assemblages of pieces of maniquens, photos, and clothing, depicting women’s struggles with society, her identity and her own inner demons.
A whole new world had opened up to me. A world in which I had permission to express freely my own version of being female.
It was the 70s, a time of burgeoning freedom, sexually and creatively. It was a hey-day for artists. Everything went. You couldn’t be too radical.
THE STRINGS OF GUILT
I had an exhibit at the Avant-garde Art Festival one year, alongside other artists, at the armory on Amsterdam St. I created a life-sized female doll, tied her to a chair, and for several hours proceeded to cut with a large scissors, strings I had wrapped around her. It was aptly named, The Strings of Guilt.
Another exhibitor, Charlotte Mormon, played the viola for hours….not very extreme, you might say. It is if you consider that she was playing it while immersed in a tank of water…in the nude.
Yoko Ono had an exhibit, next to mine, which consisted of a wall phone. When it rang, you could pick up the receiver and hear her screeching some sort of prose, which was pre-recorded.
There was another performance artist who, for several hours, would just sit on a huge mound of dirt, while live mice scurried back and forth throughout the sacred mound.
Another fellow artist lay in a coffin, open casket style, for hours.
All of it appealed thoroughly to my otherwise stifled life of following all the rules in the suburbs. It spoke to my deep desire to break free from my past and express that feeedom in a place that embraced it.
But it wasn’t good news to my parents and the rest of my family…taking up with my art teacher, a much older and unconventional man. I payed a big price for the joy I was beginning to feel.
Being rejected by my family, and made to feel shame for just wanting to be myself was not easy. Of course I understood, much later, that my parents were just trying to protect me. They could see that for a young, sensitive girl who was becoming a woman, the world could be quite unsafe.
With Al, I was immersed in an intoxicating world of musicians and artists, some whom he knew personally. Al had been friends with Yoko Ono, a fellow artist. At one point we had an intimate Thanksgiving dinner with her and John Lennon at a Canal Street loft. Just six of us.
We spent afternoons with Andy Warhol.
But my focus was on Al, who I saw as a dynamic, colorful and innovative and worldly artist. There was something intoxicating about him, that, through my young naive eyes, was irresistible.
ROSE COLORED GLASSES
But over time I began to see a side to Al that disturbed me. He rarely let his guard down, he was wrestling with his own demons, and he was clearly angry at women. Things got more and more uncomfortable between us after a year of living together. He had lost his professorship at Rutgers and was in a low place in his own life. A place I couldn’t help him to move out from.
The man who stood in front of a classroom of wide-eyed art students a few years earlier, who I became so enchanted with, who was my first love, and who took me under his wing, on a whirlwind ride so far removed from my own life, was now someone much more real to me. It was sobering.
The day-to-day grind of working at regular jobs and living together in a cramped studio apartment in East Orange, New Jersey, tested an already shaky relationship.
We both knew it was getting to be that time.
Our break up was bitter-sweet. It was freeing on the one hand, but there was plenty of anger and blame to go around.
But of course I would never forget him. He was a life changing experience. Years later, I read he had died in Cologne, Germany, where he had created an art school. I attended a tribute in New York City, given to him by his grandson, Beck, a now popular American singer and songwriter.
By then much of the memories had faded, and I was firmly into the next chapter of my life. I just recall having been a part of a rich world of creative and emotional passion .
Al and I sought refuge in each other, perhaps both of us desperate to get away from our personal lives, his the craziness of being a New York City artist, and mine the over-protected girl from Newark, New Jersey.
And in spite of it all, I was happy to have been a part of Al’s life.
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