Laurie Anderson’s Glorious, Chaotic New York

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This content was originally published by JOHN LELAND on 21 April 2017 | 9:00 am.
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“I’m a journalist,” she said. “It’s tough to write something in moments like this, when people are already on the verge of going crazy trying to patch their lives back together, mostly through the stories. My fear is that I won’t be able to describe it. I’m teaching myself a lot right now in trying to talk about what stories are, how you make them up, what the difference is between fiction and reality. I build those fictions all the time and call them my life.”

“I’m not that hopeful about what’s going on here,” she added. “I was talking to one of my Buddhist teachers this morning and I said: ‘Let’s say we do wipe ourselves off the face of the earth. How does karma work then, if there are no humans?’”

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Ms. Anderson is also grieving: for her mother; her friends David Bowie and Carrie Fisher; the critic and writer John Berger; Mr. Reed. Also for her dog, a rat terrier named Lolabelle, who once appeared with her and Mr. Reed on Charlie Rose’s talk show. On the show, Ms. Anderson held the dog in her lap while Mr. Reed touched Ms. Anderson affectionately — they were not married yet — and told Mr. Rose: “She writes, she paints, she does photography, she sculpts. She’s a tech head. There’s nothing she can’t do.” In 2015, two years after Mr. Reed had died from liver disease, Ms. Anderson made a documentary film about Lolabelle’s death, “Heart of a Dog,” in which Mr. Reed is absent until the very end. On April 29, she will include one of his guitar drones in a performance at the Highline Ballroom. He was, she said, still very much a living presence in her life.

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Lions of New York






  • This article is among a series of interviews by John Leland with New Yorkers who, in response to the crises of the 1970s and ’80s, helped to shape the city’s renaissance.




“I learn from him every day now,” she said. “I have since he died. Every single day I see something in my house that he put there for me, a note or a piece of paper or a book that he had written in, or one of his shirts. He’s very, very present for me. It’s not like, ‘Oh, my dead husband.’”

On an afternoon in April, Ms. Anderson was drawing and smearing chalk images for the cover of a book called “All the Things That I Lost in the Flood,” which she described variously as a book about language and loss; about Hurricane Sandy; and as a career retrospective, going back to her first performance, in the early 1970s, playing a violin filled with water.

It was a time before New York’s downtown art world had found its shape or a market. SoHo had just a few commercial galleries and two restaurants, one of which was run by artists. She once compared the scene to Paris in the 1920s.

“There was a big party every night,” she said. “We talked a lot. We were really serious. We knew we would change the world. We were probably pretty obnoxious. Did a lot of drugs. A lot of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Well, not so much rock ’n’ roll. But sex and drugs for sure. Lots.”

“I’m always trying to think, did we really have that much fun?” she added. “How much am I idealizing my childhood as an artist? Probably some. It was tough. When I got this place, there was no roof. Snow came in here. And holes going down into other places, big ones. No water and no electricity, so we tapped into the city for free electricity and we hauled water up and we had wood stoves. It was really fun.”

Ms. Anderson moved to New York in 1966 to attend Barnard College, finishing her graduate studies at the School of Visual Arts and Columbia just in time to fall in with a coterie of peers attracted by the cheap rents downtown. Setting the pattern for her career, she threw together a little bit of everything, working in sculpture, painting, music, film, literature, computers and gender bending, all of it layered with wide-eyed curiosity and knowing ambivalence.

Photo

Ms. Anderson and her husband, Lou Reed, in 2002.

Credit
Richard Corkery/Daily News Archive, via Getty Images

“It was a wonderful time,” said Mr. Glass, 80, who used to leave his son at Ms. Anderson’s sculpture studio in the East Village while he worked a day job, mostly doing construction. “There wasn’t a lot of money, but there was constantly something going on. People didn’t have careers then, they had work. We didn’t know what a career was. We were artists. It didn’t occur to us that you would make a living at it someday.

“There was very little support for that generation of artists. There was none, in fact. The big support system was the artist community themselves. So we were at each other’s performances, quite often at empty lofts.”

If the artists were poor, Mr. Glass said, they were also able to live very cheaply. “My first loft was down by the fish market, and I paid $30 a month,” he said. “I don’t think I’m fantasizing, but I tell young people it was much easier then.”

For Ms. Anderson, the center of that scene was Gordon Matta-Clark, whose site-specific work included cutting shapes out of abandoned buildings, even sawing buildings in half. Mr. Matta-Clark, who died in 1978, organized a group of artists called Anarchitecture, who held long discussions that often ended in dance parties and eventually had a group show at 112 Greene Street, a cooperative gallery where artists were allowed to knock holes in the walls or floors. Ms. Anderson became a regular.

“Laurie was new in town also and we all started hearing about her,” said Richard Landry, a saxophonist who moved to New York from Louisiana to play with Mr. Glass and later performed with Ms. Anderson. “It was a communal affair. I had a place at 10 Chatham Square. I cooked once a week, and the art world came there, including Laurie. The whole art world would eat and party or whatever.”

Through the photographer Marcia Resnick, Ms. Anderson got a large loft at the western edge of Canal Street with views of the Hudson, above a methadone clinic. Many of the lofts had no doors, Ms. Resnick said, and the patients would wander into people’s homes. The city was spiraling toward bankruptcy, but for artists, the chaos offered opportunity.

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