Tributes & Obituaries: Theresa Cha, Keith Haring & Barbara Lehmann

Theresa Cha
Village Voice, "Homicide, Homelessness & Winged Pigs," February 16, 1988, p. 107

With Carl Andre currently facing manslaughter charges for the death of Ana Mendieta, his wife, it seems appropriate and timely to recall the death and life of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Apt because Cha, like Mendieta, was a gifted artist creating vital work at the time of her death. Timely because Cha's assailant, Joey Sanza, was finally convicted of second degree murder and rape this past December, five years after he killed her on November 5, 1982.

On that night, Sanza--a Security guard at Manhattan's Puck Building--attacked Cha as she entered the building to meet her husband, Richard Barnes. He raped, then strangled and bludgeoned her to death, at some point removing a ring from her finger. This bizarre modus operandi linked Cha's case to a number of rapes in Florida. (Sanza was convicted of 12 counts of rape there in 1983.) The use of testimony from three of the rape victims at the initial murder trial in October 1984 resulted in the murder and rape convictions being overturned. A second trial took place in September 1987 and ended--due to a technically improper question--in a mistrial. In December, Sanza was "speedily convicted," according to Jeff Schlanger, the Manhattan assistant district attorney who prosecuted the cases.

The case was vigorously retried, in part, because Sanza's 12 concurrent "life" sentences for rape in Florida made him eligible for parole just three years after he began serving time there in 1983! (He has not been paroled.) Should he be paroled, he will serve the remainder of a 25-years-to-life sentence in New York. Schlanger called the case an "unusual" homicide. Why? Sadly, "because the victim was unrelated to the assailant."

What about Theresa Cha's life and art? Born in Korea in 1952, she came to the United States in 1962 and studied at Berkeley during the '70s. Her poststructuralist linguistic concerns preceded those of the language-conscious '80s and were embodied in haunting performances, books, and videotapes. "Memory, time, silence, words, and whiteness were," according to art historian Moira Roth, "favorite words and favorite subjects of discourse in Theresa Cha's exquisite and precise artistic experiments."

Long-time artist-friend Judith Barry, who helped hang a posthumous show of Cha's work at Artists' Space a month after she was killed, described her output "as a total extension of herself. She was private, but interested in communicating, in finding a place for herself in language...projecting words into a performance space, animating them." Artist Peter D'Agostino remembers her work as I do: "Mesmerizing. Self-contained, interiorized...One was always struck by her voice." I saw Cha perform just once, in 1978, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At the time I'd never heard the term "performance art." Cha gave it indelible meaning.

Her art can be seen in April, in a large group show called Autobiography, In Her Own Image, at the INTAR Gallery, or in her books, Dicteé and Apparatus, published by Tanam Press.

Keith Haring: A Tribute

For many of us, last season's most significant event was Keith Haring's death on 16 February. It wasn't simply that AIDS had decimated another brilliant talent. In life, the world's best-known artist had come to embody the vitality and public spirit that still flourish in contemporary New York. Haring's death seemed emblematic of deepening social malaise. Goodbye eighties, hello fin de siècle.

Haring's intertwined art and life symbolize much that is central to contemporary culture. Andy Warhol's heir, Haring made art that successfully bridged the once-gaping divide separating high art and popular culture. Although Andy yearned to make his art accessible, he thought of accessibility in terms of headline-hugging content rather than price tags. When Keith first opened his Pop Shop in 1986, it was to make art affordable and to keep his designs from being ripped off. He viewed the shop's mostly two-dimensional wares as art: subway advertising spaces, t-shirts, posters and canvas were all the same to him.

Haring had his first New York solo show in 1981, and by the time he had appeared in simultaneous exhibitions at the Tony Shafrazi and Leo Castelli galleries in 1983, he was a star. His timing (and luck) had been remarkable. He came to New York in 1977, at the moment when the late modern order was crumbling. Graffiti, hip-hop, and street culture, a lively club scene, nascent art-world internationalism, budding neo-expressionism, and the transformation of ethnicity into something that would come to be known as multiculturalism, were all components of the emerging eighties. The decade would nourish many young artists, none more than Haring.

Starting in the early eighties, Haring and the downtown scene led parallel lives, growing together from the streets and club-cum-galleries of the Lower East Side and the East Village; to the glitzy, Wall Street-fueled, Warhol-Palladium period of the mid-eighties; to the reemergence of activism about AIDS, the environment, and homelessness that has become such a conspicuous feature of today's art world. It is difficult to avoid constructing narratives about Haring, the art and media star. One alternative is to trivialize a body of art that has survived its fifteen minutes of media glare, to dismiss it as merely of sociological interest. But this is no longer possible in the media age--the distinctions between an artist, an artwork, and their social milieu have completely collapsed.

When Haring began drawing in the subway in 1981, he was already the veteran of two exhibitions that had helped define New York's so-called "New Wave": the Times Square Show, a circuslike extravaganza held in a decaying, midtown massage parlor; and Events, an exhibition organized by Fashion Moda (the Bronx alternative space) for the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The attention that he got in the subway for his chalk images of crawling babies, dogs, flying saucers, and TV sets was instantaneous. It never died down.

At first, that attention came from the art press. A snippet of a review of Haring's debut at Shafrazi suggests the seriousness and intensity with which his work was initially scrutinized: "Females are seen at birth, or as icons...the emotional climate is euphoric, totally unmediated." Semiotics, calligraphy, and art brut were frequently invoked by New York's leading critics in conjunction with Haring's work. From 1982 to 1984, the graffiti bandwagon spiced an art discourse hopelessly mired in international Neo-Ex.

But starting in late 1983, press attention began to come almost exclusively from the general media. Why had the art press moved on? Some critics, of course, had never like the work, while others mistook Haring's simplicity for simplemindedness. The spotlight had shifted, and the basic Haring story (in which the pot-smoking, small-town boy who had learned cartooning from his father left commercial art school after seeing a Pierre Alechinsky retrospective and reading William S. Burroughs) had already been plotted.

Other astute art observers sensed that Haring had actually stopped being a gallery artist--despite the certification of well-placed collectors and museums. Exhibitions were regularly staged, including Haring's first foray into fabricated steel sculpture, presented at Castelli on Greene Street in 1986. Such works, however, lacked the site-specificity that had become so crucial to Haring's work.

Haring had always painted on everything, especially the walls of the clubs, galleries, and museums hosting his exhibitions. This cover-the-earth sensibility was both his art and this trademark; with it, he could transform even art objects of traditional format into environmental installations. Haring's decorative exuberance was most recently displayed in New York in the virtuoso celebration of polymorphous sexuality that he painted for a 1989 exhibition commemorating the twentieth anniversary of gay liberation at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center.

Haring's real calling was as a community artist. In 1982, he printed and distributed 20,000 free posters for the 12 June antinuclear rally in Central Park. One third of his sixteen-page, single-spaced resume is devoted to "special projects." A few excerpts from 1988-89: Artist-in-residence for the Chicago and Iowa City public schools; designer of a logo and t-shirts for "Young Scientists' Day" at Mount Sinai Medical School; painter of the "Easter at the White House" mural donated to Washington Children's Hospital; designer of a first-day cover and lithograph for the United Nations' "International Volunteer Year;" designer of a poster for a New York Public Library Literacy Campaign; painter of a permanent mural on the exterior wall of San Antonio church in Pisa.

This list certainly attests to Haring's concern for children and his long-standing desire to be a positive role model for them. It fails, however, to convey the cultural and racial inclusiveness that was second nature to him--this he expressed in works about South Africa, his choice of a non-White lover, and the "Crack is Wack" murals targeted at people of color--and his increasing gay and AIDS activism. He had been donating t-shirt and poster designs to ACT-UP since 1988, and his sculpture Totem garnered $70,000 at the group's fundraising auction on 3 December 1989.

New York Mayor David Dinkins acknowledged these political activities at Haring's memorial "tribute," an elaborately staged affair held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on 4 May. This "tribute" was oddly impersonal, showcasing performers such as Jessye Norman, Jock Soto, and Heather Watts of the New York City Ballet, and Haring-chum Melissa Fenley; estate-plumping pontification from too many dealers and art historians, and some moving moments from Keith's sister Kay and friends Kenny Scharf, Ann Magnuson, and Fred Brathwaife.

A few references were made to the conjunction of the memorial with what would have been Haring's thirty-second birthday, but too few to the significance that Keith's birthdays had held for him. It was his habit to let loose with elaborate birthday bashes that featured performances by friends such as Madonna, John Dex, and Grace Jones. Birthday parties and memorial services are, of course, quite different. Memorials are a form of portraiture, and this final likeness seemed largely official.

Knowing Barbara: A Memoir

Author's note: This previously unpublished meditation on memorialization and the death of my friend Barbara Lehmann--a performer and novelist--was written in 1993.

September 16. More than two months after the death of her daughter (and my friend) Barbara, Minnette called to discuss the still-fragmentary, autopsy report. She'd heard from mutual friends that I was writing about Barbara and left a tearful message on my answering machine last night. Although the New York medical examiner still hadn't sent his report, Minnette had received a phone call of apology from the slow-moving agency: The empty syringe a new employee reportedly saw in Barbara's apartment he'd apparently seen somewhere else. Or invented. "It was a figment of someone's imagination," Minnette explained to my machine.

Nor had Barbara died from striking her head on a hard object or surface in her bathroom. "The head wound was superficial; she was dead before she hit the ground. There was nothing wrong with her," Minnette explained when I called back. "Nothing except that she had a terrible cancer inside her." What had been (mis)diagnosed as easily removable fibroid tumors turned out to be a deadly sarcoma at the base of Barbara's spine. "It wasn't a recurrence of Hodgkin's, but it may well have been caused by the chemo twenty-four years ago," Minnette said. "It was inoperable. She was always so worried about cancer she would have been shattered. Absolutely shattered....We all know that."

What caused Barbara's death? Astonishingly the question never arose during our hour-long conversation. I was, instead, dumb-struck by the entirely new meaning this most recently arrived-at cause of death (or its lack) seemed to impose on Barbara's life. Could this tragic accident that had snuffed the life of a vivid and enigmatic 38 year-old be the proverbial blessing in disguise? And how can emotions fall in line with still-inconclusive "facts"? Death always completes a life by enabling the construction of a narrative, the assignment of meanings. Barbara's death has been peculiarly untidy. She remains, in some sense, still missing in action.

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I met Barbara in 1979 when both of us lived in San Francisco. I was immediately struck by her brainy pugnacity, a combination more inviting than threatening. When I heard the news of her death I also happened to be in San Francisco. "Have you talked to Kathy today?" my friend Marion asked. (I wondered if she was miffed that Kathy and I had planned dinner without her.) "There was a message on her machine. Barbara is dead. Minnette and Herbert have flown to New York and no one knows anything."

I hadn't the vaguest idea of what to say; an inability to communicate that colors my memories of that day. Clichés and questions, half thoughts and sentence fragments, choked and guttural expressions of pain tumbled out, or remained--constricted--inside. Kathy and I met for a pre-dinner drink, tears streaming down our faces as we held hands across the chest-high bar-table. Knowing next to nothing, we obsessively catalogued (and re-catalogued) what little we knew: Barbara had been in pain all year. Her problem had finally been diagnosed as fibroid tumors and surgery had already been scheduled. She couldn't wait to come to San Francisco in August. She was nearly finished with her novel. She was in good spirits.

Dinner--and plenty of wine--failed to diminish our anxiety or alleviate our confusion. In fact, it had the opposite effect. "Maybe someone broke into her apartment," one of us commented (moronically) for the umpteenth time. "Maybe Perry knows," Kathy said. "I'll call him in New York." What if Barbara had met with violence? The knowledge would hardly bring her back, although it might re-cast her in a different, posthumous light.

"You won't believe this," Kathy said, as she slipped back into the banquette. "Perry said Barbara hit her head in the bathroom. Nobody knows if she slipped or what. She missed her shrink appointment. Her shrink called [her sister] Stephanie, who got a locksmith to break in. There was an empty bottle of pain killers, but it might have been empty for days." The effect of this information was almost nauseating. "They'll probably do an autopsy."

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Barbara died on July 7 and on July 11 one of the Amys held a memorial for her. (Barbara had three close friends named Amy.) The body had already been cremated, the family was still in New York, and the heat wave continued to break records, hitting 103 degrees that Sunday. Nearly 40 friends stayed in the city to attend the gathering in Amy's stifling apartment, just a flew blocks from where Barbara had lived in the East Village. (Or what she called "The Fashionable East Village" on her address labels.) I may have been in California preparing to teach, but that didn't stop me from formulating my own perspective on events taking place several thousand miles away.

I should note at this point that I am a journalist. Like most people, I am interested in causes and effects. I never intended to interview people about the memorial; it didn't occur to me to write about Barbara until six weeks after her death. But many of us talked. For those on the West Coast, it was a way of coping with not being close by. I was staying with Judy, who'd returned to California a year ago. Before that she'd lived around the corner from Barbara and breakfasted with her almost every morning at a nearby Polish coffee shop. "She had fascinating dreams," Judy recounted.

My lover Steven provided the first account of the memorial, barely two hours after its conclusion: "We walked in and while I was waiting to talk to Minnette, I looked at this shrine on the wall. It was made up of two of Barbara's dresses--a shiny, hot-pink mini that people called a 'Barbie' outfit, and a satin pegnoir from her collection. There were photos and incense and later everyone spoke in front of it. Minnette was breathless, but holding it together. Not [her husband] Herbert. He sat by himself near the window. Stricken. Minnette pulled me close and said, 'It was an accident, just an accident.' It was a little feverish. I could smell her perfume and her sweat and her breath.

"Barbara's brother-in-law Steve started the public speaking. He described the weekend before Barbara's death, in Woodstock. Pain had made her cranky and short-tempered and she cut the weekend short. About a dozen other people spoke. Although there was lots of love expressed, the leitmotif of the afternoon was tiffs, those periods of not speaking everyone had with Barbara. It became a joke. 'She didn't speak to me for a year,' or 'I don't have to tell you that she was difficult and that we feuded but made up.' The directness was shocking. Most of us didn't know very many people there and that was surprising. I was very interested in different views of Barbara. [Her sister] Stephanie was the most moving--she talked about driving Barbara to the bus in Woodstock last week and Barbara turning to her at the end and saying 'I love you.'

"When Minnette finally got up to speak she said: 'We've all wondered what happened. We wondered if it was suicide and we all had our list of what we'd done. But it was an accident, just an accident, a horrible accident...I thought I had a direct line to Barbara,' she continued, as if not quite convinced. 'We all did."

After hearing a half-dozen, largely similar accounts of the memorial, this reference to a "direct line" is the one comment that haunts me. It's a remarkable admission that calls into question the statement of certainty preceding it. The point is not that Barbara's cause of death remains a mystery (at least as I write this), but that Barbara herself remains a mystery.

Since we no longer share a common history and fate, values or assumptions, knowing people today means knowing their private stories. The voyeuristic, close-in view is necessary to confirm the similarity of our experiences. Knowing Barbara was in some essential way like knowing a fictional or public character. She revealed herself in dollops; some of the biggest were posthumous. She viewed her life as a series of narratives and eventually we all adopted her view.

One recurring narrative at that first memorial was the realization of how much of an effect she'd had on her friends. "I wouldn't know who I am without her," a wide-eyed member of her writing group confided. Such accounts usually reveal as much about the speaker as the subject. A young, women's-magazine-editor for whom Barbara wrote, termed her the most "eccentric" person she'd ever met and described her consternation when Barbara arrived at her midtown office dressed in a ballgown. (Apparently this editor hadn't had much experience with eccentricity.) Her story also suggests Barbara's striking presence. She assumed a vaguely emblematic quality. An art historian friend describes Marcel Duchamp as a "Self Readymade" and this applies to Barbara as well.

Barbara was more willful than eccentric; an accomplished actress and performance artist who realized the attention-getting value of props. She liked to dress up--as one friend noted at the memorial "she lived in a costume party"--and ball gowns loom large in her later life. Barbara was a collector and much of her pleasure in these polyester and rayon artifacts of the fifties and sixties was derived from the activities of acquiring and possessing them. One of the Amys--Barbara's fellow ballgown hunter--described their hunt for the pegnoir displayed at the memorial: "We both wanted it. We usually had an unspoken rule that whoever looked better in it could have it, but this time we decided to flip a coin," she explained. "I knew that no matter what happened she'd end up with it." That Amy chose not to name her feelings--exploitation, irritation, even amusement--was typical of the seductive hold Barbara could exert. Once you operated on her terms, any possibility of agency was lost. If you weren't feuding, it didn't seem to much matter.

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Although I missed Barbara's New York memorial, I have attended plenty of others. A few years ago I decided not to go to memorials unless the deceased was a close friend. This wasn't always the case. For about five years beginning in the mid-eighties, I went if I respected an artist's or an activist's work. I thought that I could learn something about death this way. I regarded every memorial service as a text, but the narratives tended to simply illuminate the rote responses in which we envelop death: "What a tragedy he died so young," uttered about the person with AIDS. Or "at least he didn't suffer," about the overweight relative who keeled over on a golf course at an advanced age.

That's not to say that memorials and funerals aren't almost always bizarrely unnerving. When my close friend Bob died of AIDS two years ago (he and Barbara were also close) a number of narratives gave disturbing meaning to his small-town funeral. The official version, known to most of those in attendance, ran like this: "We sat in this very church three years ago after Bobbie's brother's untimely death in a car crash." (The deceased's possible drug use at the time of the car crash was by now old business, but the playing of a tape of the now-dead older brother singing one of his own compositions at his younger sibling's funeral remains one of the most pitiable moments of my life.) A subtext of Bob's funeral, known only to the immediate family and a few of us out-of-towners, was the singleminded denial of Bob's cause of death and his homosexuality. The conspicuous presence of a distraught young mourner--the deceased's lover Matt--went unexplained. I found the subjectivity vertiginous.

Public memorials may be more predictable, but not necessarily less disturbing. While writing this piece, I felt compelled to attend a service for Jeffrey Schmaltz, the New York Times reporter who'd died of AIDS and been eulogized by Bill Clinton for his coverage of the epidemic. It was an occasion for acutely mixed feelings. Personally unacquainted with Schmaltz, I was moved by the evident regard in which his friends and co-workers held him. I also felt disdain for his closeted ways: Here was a reporter my own age who came out as a gay man and a person with AIDS only after he keeled over in the newsroom of a paper notorious for its lack of investigative reporting about AIDS. Might Schmaltz's circumspection and lies of omission have made him the perfect Timesman and accounted for the regard in which he was held? And who was the more appalling speaker at this memorial: Columnist Anna "we-are-all-family" Quindlen? Or activist-psychopath Larry "AIDS-is-intentional-genocide" Kramer? Only a thin line separates prophecy from performance art.

After artist Keith Haring died, a public spectacle was staged in the elephantine Cathedral of St. John the Divine on May 4, 1990. Before a large audience, then-mayor David Dinkins gushed, art dealers Tony Shafrazi and Jeffrey Deith pontificated, New York City Ballet dancers Heather Watts and Jock Soto twirled, and soprano Jessye Norman trilled. A few speakers vainly attempted to introduce some personality--some sense of the person--to the leaden proceedings; Haring's sister spoke especially movingly about her affection for her older brother. I wondered about Keith's role in this production, whether he'd had a hand in planning the service. For an event as complex as this one, the parchment programs might well have credited someone with "concept." And just who decided that the world famous artist would be memorialized at St. John that day?

Among those dying lingering, premature deaths--I'm thinking of breast cancer as well as AIDS--the task of planning funerals or memorials is often taken with the utmost seriousness. The involvement (or non-involvement) of the terminally-ill is also an acutely accurate guage of denial, as in the case of my friend Bob, who left his service in the hands of his psychologically ill-equipped family. When a friend hesitantly asks you to help take care of his obituary, you know s/he's winding up professional affairs. But when s/he asks you to help conceive or execute the memorial service it's a likely indication that s/he is coming to terms with the end. (Ironically, this process sometimes seems to prolong life by providing a reason for living.) Memorials can be complicated: I recall one that featured scripted reminiscences; poems and souvenir copies of them; slides and audiotapes; a rented hall and Kosher, catered food.

These sorts of demands frequently pale, however, alongside the psychological provocation sometimes programmed into memorials. I remember a public gathering for a curator who I knew slightly, but with whom I shared many intimate friends. A bundle of contradictions, this flirtatious and difficult man had been active in AIDS causes, but closeted about his own ill-health. He left a detailed plan for his service--a three-minute rap from performance artist X at the top of the bill; a five-minute encomium from museum director Y at the bottom, and so on. But infinitely more fascinating were the responses of those who'd been left off the program. Like spurned lovers, their anger and guilt revealed a surprising reserve of (unresolved) feeling. The deceased, it turned out, was even more adept at manipulating them after death, than he had been during his life.

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Such (apparent) premeditation led me to think of memorials as an art form. Barbara's memorial, however, had been quite artless--in the sense of being spontaneous, unplanned, even--if you will--"real." Or perhaps real-sounding is more apt, since my information came mostly from actors, writers and other professional narrators.

A narrator par excellence, I don't think Barbara would have liked this memorial much. Reality interested her less than its imaginative double. She was an artist, and her metier was presentation. (Cushioning the small of my back as I write this is a satin pinwheel-of-a-pillow that Barbara made and that bears the label "Made especially for you by Princess B.") I suspect that she'd have preferred a gushingly ritualized tribute on the order of the American Film Institute's recent canonization of Elizabeth Taylor. (Barbara's primary form of entertaining was an annual birthday party celebrating herself.)

Nor do I think that Barbara--given the time to plan her memorial--could have woven a satisfying narrative from the diverse strands of her art and life. (Many people at the memorial remarked how surprised they were to know so few of her other friends.) Writer's block aside, her accomplished art could take care of itself. But Barbara's life was often denigrated, by Barbara herself, for a frequent absence of lovers. She struggled so hard to reconcile the award-winning performer and increasingly adept writer with the unhappily single woman, that her friends could hardly be expected to succeed where she'd so often failed. It would have been easier for her to leave any public memorial-planning to friends--a last chance to prove their loyalty?--and to (brilliantly) conceive some more intimate, private forms of leave-taking.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer (and conservate politician), tells the story of a novelist who committed suicide. He left a note beside his body with instructions for a lavish, official funeral that were respected, although they suggested an overly-elevated view of his station in life. After the funeral, friends and colleagues received letters from the novelist--each attributing his death to a different cause, and each cause calibrated to the sensibilities of the receiver. Vargas Llosa interprets the story as a parable of artistic allegiances divided between self and state. I prefer a more strictly psychological reading. The case of the novelist represents, it seems to me, the difficulty of distinguishing between the revenge of the dead on the living and final acts of consideration. Unlike Vargas Llosa's novelist, Barbara would have made it clear to each of us that our relationship with her had been utterly unique.

© 2002