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.