Jan 29, 2018

Why Haven’t You Heard of Cary Leibowitz?

Andrew Ingall

Have You Heard of Cary Leibowitz? If the answer is no, then it’s time to get woke. Cary is a six-pointed star who shines bright amidst a constellation of celebrity artists. His current exhibition, organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum and on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, is a dense installation of nearly 350 paintings, drawings, ceramics, photography, and other media. Museum Show features a 1990 series of text-based paintings in which he declares affection for blue-chip luminaries such as Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.

While Cary showers other artists with affection, he simultaneously wallows in self-hatred with wit and aplomb. He not only devalues his professional status but also denigrates his queer Jewish body by asserting, “my ass is too fat to let my career fall through the cracks.”

Cary may not command the same prices at auction when compared with those he namechecks. As Worldwide Co-Head of Editions at Phillips, he would know. However, his value reached astronomical heights to me as a twentysomething gay man who discovered contemporary art in early 1990s San Francisco.

I might have initially seen Cary’s work at Kiki, the legendary and short-lived storefront gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District, not far from my shared flat on Bartlett Street. The show was called Sick Joke: Bitterness, Sarcasm & Irony in the Second AIDS Decade (1993). I gravitated to Kiki for lively exhibition openings and for the contemporary art education it offered. Rick Jacobsen, the gallery’s impresario, possessed a wicked sense of humor, goofball charm, ginger good looks, and great taste in art. Rick introduced me to a circle of artists that included Philip Horvitz, a performer-choreographer-writer fluent in both post-structuralist theory and show tunes. Phil cast me and Rick in Being Alive, an experimental mash-up of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and music from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Philip’s deftly woven script also consisted of appropriated texts from The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and other dysfunctional family films of the 1960s. I played the male ingénue, an amalgam of multiple characters: the incestuous, guilt-ridden Orin Mannon, the bachelor Bobby yearning for someone to hurt him too deep, and the disillusioned Benjamin Braddock. I imagine that Cary would have appreciated the interpretation of the Orin/Bobby/Benjamin character: a sexually confused, upper middle class suburban Jew who wore a WASPy cable-knit tennis sweater accessorized with a “chai” necklace.[1]
Being Alive_1Being Alive_2Being Alive_3Being Alive_4

I was able to support my post-graduate education with Phil and Rick because San Francisco was still affordable for those without a trust fund or tech job. I earned money by serving wheatgrass shots, bee pollen, and smoothies at a vitamin store in the Castro. After weeks of drinking peanut butter and banana protein shakes and avoiding exercise, I could no longer fit into my jeans. I began to resemble the husky bar mitzvah boy who graces the GAIN! WAIT! NOW! trash can/umbrella stand multiples.

Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.

I suspect that the storeowners were relieved when I quit after a few months. I was not the paragon of health and vitality that the Castro demanded at a time when so many gay men faced a death sentence. The one full-time salaried position during my San Francisco sojourn was, in fact, as administrative assistant at The CJM, an institution known in its pre-Liebeskind era as The Jewish Museum San Francisco and relegated to the windowless basement of the Jewish Federation building on the Embarcadero. Going to work felt like walking into a hidden gay bar from a previous era.

But the experience ultimately set me on a path toward becoming a museum professional. Later I rediscovered Cary on the East Coast in Too Jewish?, an exhibition that piqued my interest in the Jewish Museum, New York and ultimately led to my thirteen-year (mazel tov to me) tenure as a film and video curator, archivist, and public program manager.

At a studio visit with Cary, he showed me new “pie charts” divided into sentiments like “i’m hungry, i hate u, i hate me more” in colors that appear brighter than previously produced pies on view at The CJM. He was also altering vintage 8″x10″ glossy photographs with Dymo labels in various colors, typefaces, and patterns. In one portraits series of the pioneering comedienne, he repeats a mantra-like text, “Phyllis Diller if you do, Phyllis Diller if you don’t,” as if to say whatever you do or decide, you can’t escape criticism. Either you’re a success or a failure. A bestseller or a sellout.

So why haven’t you heard of Cary Leibowitz? During our conversation, Cary had suggested to me that his aesthetic still makes the art work ill at ease. Yes, his language is vulgar and he’s queer as a three-dollar bill. But what is perhaps most crude about Cary is his unapologetic origins in late 20th-century American Jewish suburbia—an environment of assimilation, upward mobility, and materialism that makes certain curators, collectors, and gatekeepers cringe. In a painting from 2013, Cary declares publicly with a mixture of irony and sincerity, “I just got a pair of gucci for bergdorfs loafers for 50% off and I really do feel better.”

Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.

At the same time, Cary is constantly apologizing for everything else in his life: “sorry I thought you said spaghetti,” 2013; “sorry i had broccoli for lunch,” 2011; “sorry I thought you said pull the trigger,” 2016; “i’m sorry i’m in love with my misery so I can’t marry u,” 1990-91, etc.

No one likes an apologist in any profession: artists, lawyers, CEOs, or U.S. presidents. It’s a sign of weakness.

Right up to the moment when his CJM exhibition opened, Cary remarked that people in the art world were asking incredulously if he was still making work after all these years. And despite all of his insecurities expressed in Museum Show, Cary concedes that he possesses greater confidence than ever and a more thoughtful and deliberative process that has resulted in a period of intense productivity. “Have you heard of Cary Leibowitz?” is fast becoming a pointless question.

Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.

[1] In addition to Rick Jacobsen and myself, members of the Coridian Players—a reference to the itinerant Shakespeare troupe from a 1966 Star Trek episode—included notable Kiki artists Cliff Hengst and Michelle Rollman and San Francisco actors Todd Baker, Sheila Balter, and Molly Goode. After he closed Kiki, Rick moved back home to Wisconsin and died of lymphoma and complications from AIDS in 1997. Philip Horvitz, who founded the group, died from cardiac arrhythmia in 2005 while on a flight from New York to Oakland. May their memories be a blessing.

Andrew Ingall is an independent producer, curator, scholar, and principal of Pandamonium Productions. He served as guest curator of Sara Greenberger Rafferty: Gloves Off, organized by the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art and traveled this past year to University Art Museum, SUNY Albany and the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery at Stony Brook University.