Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 11

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John Lilly

We have a special place in our hearts for those friendships of  early adulthood whose comradeship was so inseparable from  our own coming of age that we  enshrine them in the golden  sunshine of that pristine moment. Such friendships seemed unbreakable.

 For years I thought John Lilly was my best friend. It was a very large class. We had entered Carnegie Tech at the same  time but hardly knew each other until the  end of our second  year. John was in one of the other of four sections of  incoming freshmen to the Department of Painting and Design. Nor did we have studio together sophomore year.

 John would spend most of his time downstairs in the sculpture studio welding steel, while Jonathan Borofsky, a bullish and aloof senior, used up all the plaster of  Paris  available to produce probably the ugliest, cubistic boxes imaginable.

 Jonathan exhibited no innate talent whatsoever, which made  him an excellent candidate to enter the graduate department at Yale. They would not have to break  him of his own special direction before molding him to their conceptual and performance art agenda. That’s when he started with his  number counting.

He would hit the mark of Cain when he photographed his face stamped all across with numbers. I shudder to look at it. It  is one of the great confrontational  memorials to the Holocaust, and I think it took a great deal of bravery on  Jonathan’s part to identify his own face to say: “There by the grace of God go I, and if you don’t like it so what!”

 With my own notoriety in the department the beginning of  sophomore year, John Lilly began greeting me more ceremoniously. That became more natural and easy  once he  made the connection that Bob Rappaport was my brother. Bob  was already a man at twenty and in his own formidable way  was becoming a presence  in the Drama Department. So John started gravitating in my direction. Intense as I’ve been  told I looked, I was someone to reckon with, and in my turn I was  flattered by John’s notice. He knew how to lay it on thick ever so smoothly.

I  did not know that at first John felt like thrashing me our  freshman year. Gangly and silly, John mistook that as a sign of a fairy; whereas I didn’t even know what a  fairy was. I just was my ridiculous self when I wasn’t deep in  concentration.

 Even Bob years later said how hard it was to explain to school chums about his brother.  In my own private world I   meandered through the basement entrance on  my way upstairs, an annoying, goofy monkey dropping undecipherable, inane lines on the dramats as I passed along the corridors where they worked on crew building sets or looked ever so tense  prior to entering rehearsal.

 Then slowly as the first year progressed, and the freshmen  had their drawings mounted on the walls of the same corridor  where the following year I would show  my portraits, John started making the connection of who this Rappaport fellow was, as did others in the department.

 But it was nothing compared to what would follow the  exhibition of portraits in the autumn of our sophomore year.  Then that changed by a magnitude of ten once I  hung “The  Burial of Christ” at the end of that year. It was such an unforeseen revelation even to me. From then on I was  acknowledged. Not that anybody did that overtly. But one  Knows.

Of course I was blind to the fact that John collected anybody who seemed cool. I suppose we all when we were young chased after what we perceived as  glamorous, but John out-fooled himself. A Gemini with a vast vocabulary spoken in a formidably smooth, deep melodious voice, John breezily assumed the mantle  of authority that went well beyond his actual maturity. And people believed him! That performance freed him of the kind of suspicion that fell on me.

 For years I underplayed my strengths. In that I placed  myself at a disadvantage in people’s perception. Instead of  a majestic personage taking an extraordinary  position in the  face of artistic fashion, I hid myself behind the outdated  guise that I had learned as the younger brother. I played that supportive role to John outside  of school, just as I would do so later with other friends who seemed so much more capable in the world than I.

 Somehow I got it into my head that I was floating on the  wind, almost invisible. I liked anonymity. So that’s what  people read: someone they couldn’t register  because I didn’t fit their picture. The only way to really see me was walking the streets in New York when I was still a young man with  mane, free-spirited, in full motion, and in command of  myself.  

 Once I walked through Mary Boone’s Gallery on a Saturday  opening on West Broadway. She was standing there surrounded  by her fans, and as I crossed the  room I felt her eyes following me. I looked back, and she didn’t look away but  kept them on me. But I couldn’t speak and passed through the crowd. What a lost moment! The cat got my tongue.

 Pam Newhouse always said I wasn’t cool. I should have gone  up to Mary Boone and said I loved her gallery. For all I  know she may have seen my pages in “The  New Criterion”. I  had taken out all those pages of spreads in “Flash Art” and “Art in America’, and then never played the role I had designed for myself. 

 Such events as at Mary Boone’s would take me unawares. I  would be dumbfounded. Some people accused me of being aloof,  a snob. I was that too. I  would stand my ground like my  Egyptian sign Sekhmett, the paired lion divinities who  observe all and judge all. Certainly one look at my self  portrait staring out  from “The Burial of Christ” shows  somebody imposing, who has no trouble making judgments.

In her third floor walkup overlooking the playground at Sixth and Houston, Regina would petition me to truly see myself as  the powerful person I am. But it seemed incredulous to me to  play it as a persona.

 Sometimes another person appears from the depths. One that  is calm and deadly accurate in the precision of the lesson, an oracle, as a much unused voice, deeply  resonant captures  the listener, and spellbound I grasp that this is really I.

 Other times, it comes on its own, which startles people;  then backs away out of sight. My ego is comfortable as such.  I don’t need to display it or pretend as my  old friend John  was so good at doing. It had worked so well for him in the  beginning. For John Lilly pretended on so many fronts. He  pretended to be an  artist, but he had very little to say; he  pretended to like women, but I can’t print here the truly vulgar definition of women that he coined; he pretended to be cool  once he moved to the west coast, but he only became  the caricature of an aging California hippie; he pretended  to be my friend, but in truth he hated my guts.

 John was so good at dissembling that at some point, like all  masters of equivocation, he ceased to know who the real John  was. He had spent a lifetime  as a chameleon ingratiating  himself with everyone who seemed cool. So as long as there  were benefits in the relationship he relished the connection. He had imagined  he had parity. Later, when he  understood that a price had been paid for favors granted, and that he had relinquished something deeper within, he turned sour. He blamed everybody but himself.

 Such would be the verdict on Robert Lepper. It was Lepper who made him into an alcoholic; though at the time it sure felt like a manly thing to do. And it was  Lepper who led him into the dead-end of kenetic sculpture; though John never  showed inclination to go in another direction. Certainly he  hadn’t any figurative  talent or did he demonstrate a vision  that was uniquely his.

 For a few short years he improvised from what he thought was  wanted. When I visited him in San Francisco on my return  from France in the spring of 1971, he  showed me some very  handsome reliquaries he had made, but soon he was bankrupt as to where to go. His excuse was his need to make a living, but he  admitted to friends that he was plan scared. But what’s there to be scared about if you have an idea that you  want to realize; you just do it. And if you can’t actualize  it grandly, then make miniatures and conceptual drawings,  and books of it for that matter!

He didn’t as far as I know. That left John a dilettante who has worked as a skilled technician fabricating pieces for other  artists.  Everything else became a pretense.  He borrowed the  ride in others’ parades as he would with Jonathan Borofsky. He was too fearful to fly on his own, terrified of freefall.  He was the invisible acrobat  catching the trapeze artist  flying through the air. 

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The Desert at Night

 Whenever I would visit my brother Bob in L.A. John and I  would do a day’s outing hiking in the desert. Almost always we would begin late in the afternoon to  avoid the most brutal heat of the day and enjoy the twilight and the magic  of the desert at night.

We each would carry back-pacts full of bottled water that we  rationed out to ourselves and possibly a jacket in case the  night proved cold. We’d get stoned  and maybe something  special like the two tabs of acid split between John and his  grown son Alex and me as we descended seven miles into a canyon, there to rest  by a grove of trees fed by a hot spring at mid-night before beginning our return. That was summer. We had used up our fresh water and so filled our plastic  bottles from the spring. We even more sparingly  drank the saltwater, but at least we had it. It was a great  purging both physically and spiritually. There was a large,  almost full moon whose light showed our way up the footpaths through the desert scrub, while we remained silent except for our footfalls and our breathing.

It was turning daylight by the time we found John’s pickup  truck and were on the freeway back to L.A., one of the remarkable excursions of my life. Never would I have done  that on my own.

 The last time John and I were out in the Mojave, and as darkness fell, we thought we heard a coyote. It was a little spooky, but not terribly frightening. We were  two big  animals; a single coyote would go after easier game. Then John spoke of something that seemed much more disquieting, not because of the implied threat,  but because it gave out  loud something in his attitude towards me that he was hiding. It was malicious. For certainly John understood the  spiritual pact of going  out alone with someone in the  desert. It depends on honoring the accord. To toy with it in jest is a form of contempt.

So as we stood there while the black desert night grew around us in a quiet blanket of solitude, John remarked how easy it would be to kill me right then and  there. No one would find the body. To which I replied matter of factly: “You know, if you want to do something; then do it. But don’t go threatening me.”

If John thought he was being amusing by seeing if he could get  my goat, I didn’t appreciate his humor. Frankly, the desert  would be a fine place to die especially at  night. And in  truth I couldn’t give a damn. So we walked out through the  blackness. I was at peace. But John gave himself away. I would never go out into the desert again with John at my side.

 

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