Portraits & Passages

Chapter 16

laurie knife attack  copy 20%

Tompkins Square   1978

Then being knife-attacked in Tompkins Square in early 1978 precipitate loosing my grip on the East Village. A period of freefall began. I was possessed by panic into  wildly abandoning a beautiful apartment that I had labored on. Everything seemed unsupportable and soiled beyond repair. The beautiful Art Deco glass and iron  entryway was wrecked by the neighbor's moronic boy and was bordered up with plywood and a solid door added. The sense of closure was unbearably stifling.

Anytime anyone on the street would jingle his keys I would jump. I had, after the attacked, gotten edgy and tense. I was all nerves; or rather I had no nerve left to be  out on the street. I was loosing my equilibrium. An overbearing disgust of the tawdriness of the place overwhelmed me: The fifth, the garbage everywhere, and  the madness. Along with this was a hidden recession caused by advancing inflation. People stopped buying paintings. Not that I ever sold many.

But worst was the barrier wall that the art world built around itself. The thought that there was no entry was overwhelming. When Joe Papp took down my paintings at  the Public Theatre a few months before the attack in Tompkins Square something inside me lost hope. As long as they were a presence there I felt I could keep up  my emotional stamina in the face of other acts of indifference and disdain. But with them down an utter grief and despair then began to take over me.

It was that that brought me to the edge as I entered Tompkins Square that night of the attack. I was in such a state that I forego the principle law of survival in  dangerous places: "Never put down your guard." But I did, and worse, I entered into a state of surrender. There had been no one in sight when I first entered the  deserted square. Looking up at the clouds racing by the full moon I guess I forgot time passing. It was time enough for a madman on crack to come swinging a knife.

I've told the story on a page in the summer issue 2003 of "Artforum" of how my portrait of "Michael and Laurie" took the brunt of it and how I survived. But after that I couldn't stay.


The day opens overcast, artlessly so, nothing certain, just dreary and vacant of the prospect of pleasure. I am preparing to go uptown to the West Side apartment where Michael’s portrait hangs.

He has effused our last meeting with his usual cloying show of affection only to disappear for the year. With his indifference explicit, I have arranged to retrieve it. We have agreed it is to be a one year loan. Perhaps his wife isn’t thrilled to have his portrait on the same canvas with the one of tall, willowy Laurie Jefferson.

None-the-less, it is a great portrait. Anybody with an eye will understand that and allow one’s mate a juvenile role that happened long before they meet.  

A dozen years before, Michael and Laurie are drama students when he has his little infatuation. Laurie’s portrait along with his is made at his request. Once that dream passes what remains become a relic of a fairy tale not meant to come true. Michael is no prince: all the kisses in the world will not change that. Laurie finds herself a leading man. Michael is cast for less glamorous parts.

At Michael’s, I hardly stay more than the time to take down the painting and roll it up. His effusive manner can’t disguise his relief. He is glad to be rid of it and me.

In a voice completely free of guile, Michael intimates how hard it is to earn a living in New York. Of course he lives very well even then, but nothing compares to what he would get used to once he is in LA Law.

So he is absolving himself; his candor solicitous and oozing: I am not to count on him to buy the work. But have I ever! That is never a requirement if one wishes to be my friend.

So I leave his apartment feeling a little soiled, though glad to have the painting back. I don’t suppose Michael understands what he is loosing. How could he; he is only an actor! 

Yet earlier I have felt the presage of karmic warning; for reclaiming the painting has a retributive cast patently declaring that Michael isn’t a friend. But why should I feel guilty; he has chosen not to be.

What I can’t ignore but don’t understand is that it is tied to a premonition – a foreboding that somehow includes the persistent thought that I should take my umbrella. It is unusually insistent.

But it isn’t going to rain, and if it should, the rolled painting could be carried under my jacket. “Stop being so compulsive” I tell myself as I head for Michael’s.

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Once back downtown, my black mood comes on with the night. Mostly it has to do with my paintings being taken down at The Public Theatre, but also I have gotten myself in a mood over Catherine Kirkwood. It is really only the kind of crush one gets in kindergarten: we are intimate friends, but neither she nor I make a move. So it is nowhere. But Joe Papp’s unceremonious removal of my paintings propels me to feeling rejected by her. After I get them back, it will be her presence as the spectral appearance haunting Joseph added to Joseph in the Pit that haunts me. 

I enter Tompkins Square shorn of resolve, though lingering in the seductive silence of the wind’s whispering across the beauty of the moon.

I start to pray: I am so weak on so many fronts. I feel the pull of the abyss. I say out loud: “I surrender.”

I am against the iron railing fencing in the central grounds of the park when the scream comes from behind my right. The arc of an arm swings towards me sideways. I duck backwards as my assailant pivots to face me with the force of his attack screaming demented like out of Psycho.

I lung at his advance, striking his face with the rolled canvas before freezing in terror: I am bashing the portrait. With that I lose my momentum and my advantage, if one could call it that; for he rebounds.

It is not the metal point of an umbrella striking him. Now, it is my turn to dodge as he slashes crisscrossing the air before my back-peddling weaving across towards the other side of the walkway trips me hard against the benches that block my retreat.

As I fall backwards flat against the bench, his knee immediately pins my chest; his arm raising upwards with the knife in his hand as my own hands rise to guard my face; then are dropped instantly not wanting my palms slashed pointlessly: an insane, fastidious concern, as I am about to be killed. I leave my body!

For a second I view myself a few feet above the fray. My psychic absence miraculously alters the scene, snapping close his rabid aggressiveness, as if some director has called “cut”, and the cameras stop; the actors pausing; awaiting direction. I return instantly, aware of how absolutely incredible it is- a storm evaporating into calm!

He still has me where he wants; he still holds the knife, but his arm is down; he isn’t wielding it, just holding it as his badge of authority to almost plaintively ask for my wallet.

Likewise, I almost civilly tell him the wallet is under me as I slightly shift to reach for it. If it weren’t for the knife and his weight still on me, it could almost be the exchange between a conductor punching tickets waking up a railroad passenger; so nonchalant our voices have become.

Upon giving it up to him, I feel his weight shifting from me, his attention on it consuming him. Temporarily he forgets me entirely in his delirium, so engrossed with looking inside my wallet, that he moves off and begins to stand, bending over the wallet, searching for the money. There is no money, maybe a dollar or two, but he has not yet realized that.

Incredible as it is; I grasp the opportunity possibly before me: it is all or nothing; can I make a move; yes! I am free to slide away for that naked moment before he turns to me again. I am standing, though barely having time for any thought before he springs at me.

This time I rally, mustering up the high hurdle kick from high school days to his rush forward, hitting his chest hard with the flat of my soft-soled shoes and bouncing him backwards with the extended thrust.

But still he comes back, damn it! I hit him again with the kick and push, and again he comes at me. I manage a third time, but there isn’t enough in me for a forth. And even if so, I really don’t know how to hurt anybody; I am just pushing him away with my dancing shoes: a bit of choreography for West Side Story, only that my life depends on this performance. 

Desperate as I am, my mind races for options. None except one. My left hand grabs hold of the railing with what little I have left in me and throw myself over it.

He does not follow. I am surprised; I am afraid he would. He has my wallet, though later I will find it thrown not far away. So it is my turn to scream at him as I run in the other direction to outside the square towards the next corner before turning around to regroup.

I am safe, but what of my painting? I hover anxiously scanning the area for signs of my assailant. He is gone. The square is once again deserted. The night is desolate; nobody is about.

That’s when I notice blood dripping from me and began to feel pain as I touch a spot between my eyebrows; my hand smeared with blood. But fear for my painting is uppermost. I have to get to it; nothing else matters!

I wait a few anxious minutes more, debating the risk, my heart racing in worry, before returning to find the dropped painting. What a relief to see it!

Unbelievably it had not been crushed in the mayhem, but has fallen out of the way of our footsteps, innocently lying there on the ground: a lovechild asleep while the attack ensues. I thank God as I pick up my baby.

No one would have imagined by the look of the seemingly raw canvas anything is there of value. The dirty grounds of the square are mainly owned by hosts of dog owners letting their packs run freely a set times of the day: dog shit everywhere blending with the dust in the air.

People would have just walked by it or kicked it out of their way: a roll of junked material like so many other pieces of discarded and half-used items that clutter the streets of the Lower East Side.     

Once home, after quickly getting the blood off my hands and the bleeding from my forehead controlled, I hold my breath as I unroll the canvas. I can see it has some dents in the fabric, but I’m not sure if the damage reaches to where the portraits are.

Laurie’s forehead is first visible as the painting unrolls, and my heart drops as her face emerges. I am in despair. But as I continue to pull the painting out, the portrait of Michael comes into view untouched. By luck it is on the other end of the roll and safe. Again, I thank God.

So it is only Laurie’s portrait that is cracked on her upper lip and hairline, and on her brow, just like the cut an inch above my eye. We all have been very lucky. 

So I’ve left it that way: the scars in the paint marking an event where I am spared; my guardian angel watching over me as usual.


                                        *   *   *   *   *   *   *

However the clemency awarded me is not without conditions; there is some kind of molting that has been required of me.

If our lives are not a haphazard crapshoot; then perhaps there is a motive for me to be pitched from the East Village just as it begins to take off, and perhaps that is just as well as it proves to be short-lived.

Most of the newly arrived wunderkind have their careers pulled out from under them in less than three years. They are just smashed and broken at the bottom drop after the giddy heights of the Bacchanalia collapses; the mass hysteria as the frenzied riders race one another for a leading slot brings most to a crescendo unanticipated.

Compared to the sexy scene it becomes, the East Village during most of the Seventies is a sleepy, peaceful sojourn. In retrospect it is a very convenient, cheap place to live. But it has used me up and pushes me out.

Ultimately, that my road will lead to Brooklyn may have been part of some greater plan; for I never would have had the kind of engagement with Philip Pearlstein that I enjoy if I hadn’t fallen into such desperate straights.

Did fate contrive our little dance where neither one could lead nor follow? But is all that protracted meandering on my part necessary, both to and from Brooklyn, that Philip and I could not have had our works engaged in a comparative dialogue without our personal story?

What has happened is the consequence of our natures; we are proverbial antagonists. Where we part company is so much more rewarding in substantial difference than any other artist to whom I could be compared.    

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micheal tucker knife attack copy 20

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