Tales of New York: A New York Play Party; Abe Hirschfeld's Sexy Statue; "Rated X" Photo Show; Sexual Art at the Whitney Museum; Penny's Arcade's "Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!"
Playing in New York
Just back from two weeks in New York, town of my roots. New York can be grim or it can be delightful. This visit, in the cool of spring, with happy, sexy people on the streets everywhere, leaned heavily in the direction of delight.
San Francisco and New York must be the two sexiest towns in the U.S. of A., but with radically different sexual styles. I remember masturbation advocate Betty Dodson commenting on the contrast, one time when she was visiting San Francisco. In New York, she said, everyone was into sex as dark and dirty. In San Francisco, to her delight, everyone was into sex as fun and play.
What I noticed among the New Yorkers I met this trip was the delightful way they had of simply taking their sex and their sexiness for granted. No hype, no pretense, no aren't we just the coolest, the hippest, the most sexually outrageous people on the planet. Just people being easy, being human, being sexual, and getting on with their lives.
Got invited to a gathering of friends who come together every couple of months for an s/m play party. They've been doing this for three years. Whenever the time seems right, Bob puts out the word to his network of friends, books a suite of rooms in an attractive midtown hotel, brings some light equipment, food and wine, and waits to see who'll show up. Once he sees how many people are there, he makes the rounds telling people what it will cost to cover expenses. This night it's $15 a couple. (And I thought New York was supposed to be expensive!)
Bob's network includes about 100 people, a third of whom were at this party. Friends of friends of friends. Working class people, mostly suburban, mostly straight. Dominant men and submissive women, but you'd never know it walking in the door. No one strutting top or mewing bottom, just people talking to each other and from time to time moving in and out of scenes. Friendly, open, informal, easy.
Introductions all around. The comfort of people going out of their way to make you feel welcome. Pretty people, unpretty people, younger people (20s and early 30s), older people (40s and 50s). Mostly, but not entirely, white. People watching other people's scenes with respect, attention, and appreciation. Conversation everywhere, background to whatever scenes are going on. People passing by scenes feeling free to offer friendly commentary, the use of a new toy or a special whip. Sometimes a couple scene grows to include an additional person or two. Lots of sensual domination, whips and spankings mixed with gentle nipple sucking or soft genital play. Some scenes that get specifically sexual, though not all. One couple goes into the bedroom and fucks on the bed. No cocks in sight, and no men playing with each other, though some mention in conversation that that's too bad.
All of it like family, like a cousins club, social as much as sexual. Familiar friends. Folks. By the end of the evening I had a base of sexual, affectionate New York confederates that hadn't existed before, people I could look up next time in town, or feel good about seeing out here. Positively wholesome.
Sex on the Streets
In New York sex is taken for granted, an on-going part of being alive, no big deal. A TV news show interviews people on the street about how important sex is to them. All but one says it is definitely important, part of the larger picture of a relationship, an aspect of being with a partner that has to work for people to feel happy and fulfilled. It is assumed that this is common knowledge, nothing more than common sense. You need food, you need sleep, you need a decent job, a decent place to live, decent sex.
Walking down Seventh Avenue, across from Penn Station, Helen (my partner) notices a huge bronze sculpture on the sidewalk, just next to the entrance to the Ramada Hotel. It is a sculpture of a naked couple sitting on a bench, embracing, while a second woman looks off into the distance, perhaps bored, waiting for them to finish playing with each other so the three of them can go for a walk or something. Nice.
"Look," Helen says, suddenly surprised, "she's holding his cock." Sure enough, the woman's hand is pressing the man's erect cock, while his balls shine beneath her palm in the sunlight. The man, meanwhile, has one hand on her breast while his other hand moves across her upper thigh, reaching for her cunt. All this right out front, on a busy sidewalk in midtown Manhattan. A hundred people a minute pass by -- business people, workers, old ladies, children -- some of them noticing the statue, most oblivious to it. No one is shocked or horrified. No one makes the sign of the cross or holds up garlic. A woman playing sensuously with a man's cock in public, like everyone does this sort of thing every day. Maybe in New York they do.
A teenage boy comes by, strokes the woman's thigh affectionately, like he's done this many times before. In New York everyone's anonymous, so you can do what you want, knowing that no one will notice, let alone object. Sometimes this goes for murdering people, but much more often it goes for being sexy in public, or unconventional in some other benign way. They say a guy once walked down Central Park West from 110th Street to 59th Street (three miles) with a python around his neck and not one person stopped or said anything about it. I notice the boy caressing the statue because I happen to be taking a picture of it at the time. The boy grins at me, unembarrassed, knowing I understand. Sex is, simple as that.
We go into the hotel to find out the story of the statue. Max, the general manager, tells us he was working at the hotel in 1984 when the statue first arrived, is working there again now, knows the whole story. He leans back in his leather armchair and settles into telling a good tale.
It seems that Abe Hirschfeld -- the 70-year-old parking garage millionaire who recently bought the New York Post, had the whole staff resign in protest, fought them all, lost, gave up, and left -- saw the statue somewhere in Florida. He liked it. He bought it as a present for his wife. His wife didn't like it. At all. Like Max says, either you love this statue or you hate it. (Of the people who talk to Max about the statue, most seem to not like it. Max himself is diplomatically neutral on the subject. "Like they say," Max says, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder.") Anyway, Hirschfeld's wife hated it, did not want it in or around her house(s).
Hirschfeld offered to donate the statue to the City but, guess what, they didn't want it either. What to do? He put it in the lobby of what was then the Penta Hotel, which he owned. (Later he sold the hotel to Ramada, but still owns the building himself, Max tells us.) As imposing as the statue is in the street, it must have been even more so in the lobby, but Hirschfeld is not known for caring about what other people think. Guests of the Penta Hotel were greeted as they arrived and left by this huge bronze ode to sex.
Soon religious groups started complaining and threatening to take their conventions elsewhere. They wanted the statue removed. Hirschfeld resisted, then compromised and put the statue on the sidewalk where it wasn't quite so much in people's faces. That seems to have been enough to quiet the good sons and daughters of Zion, so there it sits on Seventh Avenue, facing Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, just outside the Penn Bar, in the heart of the garment district. As the artist has engraved, graffiti-like, on the statue's bench, "Amor, con la passione para siempre -- wonderful ocean of sex."
"Rated X" Photo Show
Over at Marge Neikrug's Photographica Gallery on East 68th Street we drop in on the 18th annual erotic group photography exhibition, "Rated X." One hundred color and black-and-white photos ranging from sensual to sexual, from mild to outrageous. Mostly sensual, mostly mild, ranging in quality from fair to wonderful. Neikrug is one of the few non-marginal photographic galleries that shows erotic and sexual photography, and the "Rated X" show has grown over the years into something of an annual spring happening. I missed this year's opening, but was there in 1991 when the two-story gallery was crammed belly to belly full of photographers, models, patrons, collectors, wannabes, and curious oglers. A naked man, painted gold head to toe, squeezed through the crowd, offering hors d'oeuvres. The atmosphere was festive, the heat stifling. People by the dozens moved out onto the sidewalk to cool off, flirt, and breathe.
Some of the most interesting work in this year's show comes from several San Francisco sex photographers, including Michael Rosen, Mark Chester, Craig Morey, and Steven Baratz. I noticed that many of the prints by these four had already been sold. There were a number of promising works in the show, including images by Carlo Gagani, Hans Farmeyer, Barbara Ellen Adelman, Stephan Lupino, Peter Monroe, Thomas Gaspar, Ron Johnson, Vivienne Maricevic, Marie-Claire Montanari, Spencer Tunick, Bill O'Connor, Dianora Niccolini, James Flanagan, Eric Kroll, Fran Collin, and Irina Ionesco.
Sexually Implicit at the Whitney Museum
From Neikrug we go to the Whitney Museum, where Robert Mapplethorpe's
sexual work was given a retrospective even before the Cincinnati/Corcoran bruhaha. The Whitney's show of socially conscious art is considered sufficiently sexual to require a disclaimer at the entrance, warning parents of sexually explicit material that might not be appropriate for children. (Obviously the museum is proud to be outrageous in these censorious times: it is selling T-shirts emblazoned with the disclaimer.) As it turns out, the only explicit sex in the show is a photo of a man licking a woman's breast, and a multi-media installation by Shu Lea Cheang, "Those Fluttering Objects of Desire," which includes occasional, non-genital, sexual video scenes.
There are other non-explicit sex-related pieces, including two very large (4' by 6') color photos by Cindy Sherman, one of a huge cock, one of a huge cunt, both awesomely overpowering. People flow by, looking up at, and often jumping away from, the photos -- generally spending considerably more time with the cunt than with the cock (especially the men).
I stand and watch people go through their reactions for quite a while, while a short, nervous-looking guard eyes me suspiciously. Finally he scurries over to warn me not to lean on the walls.
"Why not?" I ask, incredulous.
"Cleanliness," he answers tersely, scampering back to his post opposite the immense, yawning cunt.
Cleanliness as in wall smudges, or cleanliness as in germs, I wonder. None of the other guards seem overly concerned with wall sanitation. Could it be that staring at colossal cunts and cocks day after day makes a person nervous about cleanliness in the sex-paranoid 90s?
The most interesting aspect of the show for me is an installation of photos from Mapplethorpe's Black Book, interspersed with statements on Mapplethorpe's work from a wide variety of commentators. My favorite quote is from anticensorship feminist organizer Carole Vance: "If we are always asked to offer a public defense of sexual images, then even in our rebuttal we have granted the right wing its most basic premise: sexuality is shameful and discrediting. It is not enough to defend the principles of free speech, while joining in denouncing the image, as some in the art world have done."
I also get a kick out of a quote from Harry Mapplethorpe, presumably Robert's father: "Here he's got three other brothers and they're all perfectly normal in my mind. I think it's the group of people he was with."
Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
Penny Arcade (Susana Ventura) is a 42-year-old performance artist whose show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! has been playing to enthusiastic crowds at P.S. 122 and The Village Gate in New York for close to a year. Subtitled "The Penny Arcade Sex and Censorship Show," BDFW combines a series of Penny's monologues with intermittent go-go dancing by a delightful array of ten very sexy, not particularly glamorous, men and women.
Aside from the title, the show is a not-so-outrageous appeal for sex, tolerance, prostitution, bisexuality, humanity, and general faith in the life spirit, sex and all. With an energy that's utterly infectious, Penny exhorts her audience to get beyond divisive oppositional thinking, moralizing, and rigid political rectitude. The show is a real joy, if occasionally didactic, and filled with memorable one-liners. I jotted down a few: "There's just one energy and it happens to be sexual;" "1993 is definitely the year of the lesbian. Lesbians can even wear lipstick now and other lesbians won't kill them;" and, with regard to why the government keeps trying to suppress sex, "People who fuck think."
"Love," Penny reminds us, "is the most political act you can make."
Spectator, June 25 1993
Copyright © 1993 David Steinberg
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