My Avant-Garde Education: A Memoir
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A wry and beautifully observed memoir about coming of age in the era of conceptual art.
Growing up in the suburbs―confused about his sexuality, about his consumer-oriented world, about the death of his older brother―Bernard Cooper falls in love with Pop art and sets off for the California Institute of the Arts, the center of the burgeoning field of conceptual art, in this beguiling memoir. The most famous, and infamous, artists of the time drift through the place, including Allan Kaprow and John Baldessari, not to mention the student who phones the Identi-Kit division of the Los Angeles Police Department and has them make a composite drawing of the Mona Lisa.
My Avant-Garde Education is at once an artist's coming-of-age story and a personal chronicle of the era of conceptual art, from a writer "of uncommon subtlety and nuance" (David Ulin, Los Angeles Times). It is a record of the wonders and follies of a certain era in art history, always aware that awakening to art is, for a young person, inseparable from awakening to the ever-shifting nature of the self.
Saturday morning, right as we were peaking, Brenda and I went to eat at a restaurant next to the La Brea Tar Pits. The patrons (I realized later they were senior citizens who’d jammed the place to take advantage of a cheap breakfast buffet) looked stiff and mineral, like fossils dredged from the ooze and resurrected, and this, along with the granules of salt breathing in the shaker, caused me to lose what little appetite I had. We spent the drive back to Brenda’s house, which seemed to take
pointedly as objects crafted by hand. Although I may have possessed a precocious sympathy for such ideas back then, they were inarticulate inklings at best, dim apprehensions. A thrilling paralysis, a churning in my solar plexus; these were (and to a large extent have remained) my sole criteria for judging art. In any case, my longest exposure to the transformative white environment of high art came when I was in the eleventh grade. At this point, a one-man show seemed the only way to prove to
class was too abashed to respond, Acconci suggested I demonstrate the assignment myself. Like many gay men, I understood at an early age that a fey gesture or tone of voice could put me in harm’s way, and so I’d developed, in the presence of strangers, an acute self-consciousness that both protected me and produced a clammy anguish. As I lit the candle, sweat dampened my forehead and blood throbbed in my ears. Before I knew what I was doing, I held the match to the paper instead of holding the
asleep, and at some point during the night I found myself lying on a desolate stretch of highway instead of in my bed. An air horn blared in the distance as faintly and sweetly as a lone bird, and the next thing I knew I was crushed beneath a truck. I awoke bolt-upright, distraught not only because I’d been mashed to a pulp but because of the fact that I’d lost my virginity and then dreamed I’d been run over by a truck. What ridiculously overt symbolism on the part of my subconscious! Did the
have existed in its own time zone; the schoolroom’s electric bells were broken; nuns had evidently absconded with the wall clocks as well as the Catholic iconography; no one bothered to wear a watch. And so a kind of migratory attendance became the norm. One was let loose on the school like a cow in a pasture, grazing from this aesthetic to that. As far as the instructors were concerned, taking attendance would have been as anachronistic as making students wear tartans or knee socks, and so we