Friday, May 17, 2013

One of the last great New York characters

Photo shoot in front of The Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Monument on Riverside Drive. 4:40 PM. Photo: Jeffrey Hirsch.
May 17, 2013. A beautiful, warm (high 70s), sunny day in New York.

The social calendar is still in high gear. This past Wednesday night was another busy one. Over at 583 Park Avenue GenerationON was honoring Chelsea Clinton with their Humanitarian Award. I did get to that one. There were almost 400 guests and they raised more than $720,000 for their very good cause inspiring children to give service to other children and their communities.
Chelsea Clinton at GenerationON  gala.
A week ago Wednesday, New York lost one of the last of its great characters of the Beat Generation and Warhol Factory stars, Taylor Mead, who died in Denver at 88. Mead was a member of the Warhol Underground – which is the way it seemed in its earliest days. What seemed far out and even weird back then is so mainstream nowadays that it hardly seems relevant to mention. There was no SoHo, no East Village, no Tribeca, no Chelsea and the artists-then-sleek-downtown culture. 

Mead in Andy Warhol's Factory Gang in '68.
However, at the time, this group, these people – the poets, the actors, the painters, the characters – were at the center of the bursting art and media scene in the early 1960s in New York. They were pre-hippie yet certainly reflected in the hippie movement. Mead turned out to be one of the very last of them.

He lived his last days as an indigent downtown resident, a habitué of the local bars where they’d fill his glass(es) on the house  and appreciate or at least respect his then ancient poet’s point of view.

He was born into a well-do-family in Grosse Pointe, and came to New York as a very young man to pursue a career as an actor, and to pursue life as he felt like it as have so many millions of Americans who made the city what it is. Leaving Grosse Pointe, he shed himself of all touchstones of bourgeois respectability, and apparently enjoyed every minute of it. He was never famous in the American media sense but he was certainly famous to generations of students and fans of the Beats and  the Warhol Factory, as well as the poets and artists of the city.

The Telegraph of London published an excellent obituary on him. He died in Denver, having given up New York only weeks before when his landlord made a financial settlement with him to vacate the apartment where he lived for many many years. He left the city but considering the little time away, he never really left it at all.
Gerard Malanga, Viva, Paul Morrissey, Taylor Mead, Brigid Berlin (NYSD 10.24.08), Joe Dallesandro, and Andy Warhol, photographed by Richard Avedon, 1969.
One more thing: He was well known for feeding the stray cats in the East Village at one particular vacant lot. The feral felines were well aware of him and would be there waiting for his arrival. I hope someone out there in the neighborhood will take up the cause for them now that Taylor has departed.

From The Telegraph:

Andy Warhol, Taylor Mead's Ass, 1964 (film still).
Taylor Mead, who has died aged 88, was an actor, beat poet and performance artist who became a key member of Andy Warhol’s “factory”, the collection of oddballs and exhibitionists who clustered around the pop artist in the 1960s and 1970s; most notably, Mead’s bare buttocks starred, for 76 minutes, in Warhol’s 1964 film Taylor Mead’s Ass.

The previous year Warhol had arrived in Hollywood with Mead, staying for two weeks at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Warhol used his new silent 16mm Bolex movie camera to shoot his first partially scripted feature, Tarzan and Jane Regained... Sort of (1963).

This featured the ridiculously puny-looking Mead as the jungle hero in a series of loosely connected episodes, including a scene in which he bathes with a naked Jane (Naomi Levine) in a bathtub and later has to rescue her. Mead edited the film, and provided his own narration and musical arrangements.

The film earned a scathing notice in The Village Voice, the reviewer observing: “People don’t want to see an hour and a half of Taylor Mead’s ass.” Mead replied in a letter that no such film was found in the archives, but “we are rectifying this undersight.” Two days later, Warhol shot the opus which consisted solely of one long shot of Taylor Mead’s posterior.
Warhol and Mead.
The film inspired a frenzy of deconstruction by avant garde critics, much of which tipped over into self-parody: “Staring at his cleft moon for 76 minutes,” wrote Wayne Koestenbaum, “I begin to understand its abstractions: high-contrast lighting conscripts the ass into being a figure for whiteness itself... The buttocks, seen in isolation, seem explicitly double: two cheeks, divided in the centre by a dark line. The bottom’s double structure recalls Andy’s two-panelled paintings...”

Mead went on to appear in several more of Warhol’s films, including Lonesome Cowboys (1968), but later receded from view. Some thought this was a pity, observing that, with his comic timing and gift for bravura improvisation, he could have been a great actor.
With actress Sally Kirkland in Wynn Chamberlain's film "Brand X."
Marcel Duchamp, Ultra Violet, and Taylor Mead.
In one interview, Mead claimed that in order to escape Warhol’s power he had fled to Italy, where Federico Fellini, under the impression that Mead was a huge star in his own country, had staged a dazzling reception for him at Cinecitta.

Taylor Mead was born at Grosse Pointe, Michigan, on New Year’s Eve 1924 to wealthy parents. After leaving Grosse Pointe Academy he held a variety of jobs, then studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in California and the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York.
Taylor at Home, circa 1968.
Taylor at home in the '90s.
And In the 2000s.
His first screen appearance was in a 1950's B-movie as a deaf mute who gets murdered. He then took a starring role in Ron Rice’s seminal Beat movie The Flower Thief (1960), in which he played an elfin mystic wandering the North Beach neighbourhood of San Francisco clutching a stolen gardenia, an American flag and a teddy bear. Three years later he was the Atom Man in Rice’s Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man.

After moving to New York, Mead became part of the Beat poetry scene before gravitating to Warhol’s “factory” on East 47th Street.
In the Pink.
Mead starred in several other independent films, including Wynn Chamberlain’s The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez (1968) — a film which boasted “gymnastic sexual liaisons in a variety of places, including trees,” and in which he appeared with fellow Warhol acolyte Ultra Violet (NYSD 12.10.01)

Mead somehow managed to survive the twin scourges of drugs and Aids which took such a heavy toll on his contemporaries, but his later years were spent in near destitution.

In 2005 he featured in a documentary, Excavating Taylor Mead, coming across as a lonely old barfly fighting eviction from a squalid Lower East Side apartment and feeding stray cats.

Taylor Mead, born December 31 1924, died May 8 2013
The octogenarian Taylor in New York.

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