'Make Me Famous' — Painter Edward Brezinski and the'80s East Village art scene in a new documentary

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Friday October 13, 2023
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Painter Edward Brezinski at Club 57, 1981.  (photo: © Kathy Dumas)
Painter Edward Brezinski at Club 57, 1981. (photo: © Kathy Dumas)

Life in New York City's East Village in the 1980s was a combination of fabulosity and terror. One could turn a corner and almost bump into Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, only to further down the street trip on a herd of rats. It was splendor mixed with occasional horror.

Graffiti artists known for iconic imagery eventually became commodities whose art was sold in fancy galleries. Wannabe artists and their friends (like this writer) attended exhibit openings to drink the free wine, schmooze, scour the crowd for celebrities, and nibble on cheese and crackers, all while a revolutionary turnaround in the art world quickly escalated to a spinning fervor.

One of the artists caught up in this milieu who never quite rose to fame, and then strangely disappeared from the scene, was Edward Brezinski (1954-2007). His brief career as a painter is the subject of the documentary "Make Me Famous," which visually takes a dizzying journey back in time to the downtown 1980s art scene.

"The East Village was ours because nobody wanted to live in the East Village," says artist David McDermott in the intro to the film.

Through a trove of archival videos and photographs, and recent interviews with people who survived that era, director Brian Vincent (coproduced with Heather Spore) captures the era in a fascinating jumble to tell the story of Brezinski, who was gay, and born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. But the film also recounts the rise and fall of the downtown New York art scene in all its tawdry glamour.

"There was [at first] no emphasis on money because there wasn't any money. In a way everyone was pure," says painter Duncan Hannah.

A self-portrait by Edward Brezinski, 1976  

Making new rules
In one of many artist and friend interviews, painter Walter Robinson says Brezinski was "definitely one of the art world's oddballs, especially the circles that I ran in were designed to give oddballs a place where they fit in."

In perhaps an attempt to replicate Andy Warhol's Factory, Brezinski turned his rundown Loft on 3rd Street into the Magic Gallery. He even painted a series of portraits of "female deity" Bianca Jagger, much rougher than Warhol's manufactured portraits, but produced in his formula.

But his style failed to charm the right people. Gallerist Sur Rodney Sur observes how Brezinski felt left out as artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring rose to fame from the slums of unspooling graffiti art on walls and in subways.

Sur says, "We were young and crazy and we were doing our own thing and making our own rules."

Brezinski's boyfriend at the time, David McDermott, now a self-proclaimed dandy living in an Irish mansion, called him "a bit of rough," which he liked. He posed for some of Brezinski's best portraits.

Scott Covert, a painter and one-time model for Brezinski, discusses how the painter destroyed the portrait before completion, which he did to other works-in-progress.

Glamorous and tatty
Director Brian Vincent captures the era, although he did not know Brezinski. He came to New York in 1990 to attend Juilliard, and missed the '80s scene, but learned about the painter through others who lived through the time.

Edward Brezinski and Click models for NY Talk Magazine, 1984 (photo: © Jonathan Postal)  

Brezinski was always organizing group shows. David McDermott brought his fascination for Victoriana into organizing New Wave art and music events that featured his artistic partner, Peter McGough, and other artists. But he eventually quit before one event, which failed to attract uptown gallery owners or collectors. Video excerpts show the glamorous tattiness of a few art openings and parties.

The late Richard Hambleton, known for his haunting shadow figures seen mostly on brick walls, shared his disappointment with the monetary shift in the scene. Hambleton mentions how the resurgence of downtown art, with dozens of galleries opening, created an influx and a price boost for art like Julian Schnabel's. Expressionism with subjects zoomed past pop art like Warhol's into a new genre.

Kenny Scharf discusses his rise to fame and a sudden moment when Brezinski tossed a glass of wine at gallerist Annina Nosei after being rejected, then paid off after a fit of rage, when he accused another artist of plagiarizing a painting.

She later healed the rift — despite his previous death threats — when she encountered him on a street, then impulsively invited him to a party hosted by famed art dealer Leo Castelli. From that event, he ended up getting one gallery exhibit.

Edward Brezinski's hand-tinted block print of First Lady Nancy Reagan, 1983 (photo: Wikipedia)  

The newest gallery's opening up
Soon, gallery openings became the new nightlife. Meanwhile, Brezinski's craving for success had yet to happen, due perhaps more to his drinking and behavior than his talent. One dismal scene at one of Brezinski's gatherings is videotape of art critic Gary Indiana eviscerating his ex-boyfriend David Wojnarowicz; for not showing up? For dumping him? We're not sure. Indiana's drunken rambling is incoherent.

While a charming and in moments a sad nostalgic jumble, the film jumps between interviews and footage showing how Brezinski tried to create a community in a whirlwind. His later works took on a religious theme to represent or allegorize the growing number of AIDS deaths.

As Scharf comments, "There was a period where basically your social scene was funerals."

Brezinski's "Crucifixion" (1983) remains a standout work of Neo-expressionism. ArtForum's former Editor-in-chief Joseph Masheck says that Brezinski was more knowledgeable about art than he let on, being amid the self-taught. "He was a rather learned painter, even though that wasn't the name of the game on the Lower East Side."

One of Edward Brezinski's religious-themed allegorical paintings  

Donut do it
Wine-tossing aside, the most notorious act was when Brezinski went to the Paula Cooper gallery in 1989 and ate a donut from a Duchamp-esque "simulation" representational art piece by Robert Gober, which was supposed to look like a bag of donuts ($8,000 then, now priced at $240,000), but actually had epoxy and formaldehyde in it.

Brezinski hated the exhibit, and as a form of protest proceeded to eat one of the donuts. A shocked Gober warned him that he was probably going to get poisoned. An ambulance was called.

Despite the near-death humiliation, Brezinski decided to call a Page Six writer at the New York Post, who wrote an item about it, "Sad Story of a Starving Artist." The news spread and Brezinski became more famous for eating someone else's art than for his own.

A bloviating Mark Kostabi talks more about his own success, but offers a truth about the success of artists who were also businessmen, which Brezinski was not. SoHo became more trendy, with "clever" art like Jeff Koons' taking precedent.

In 1990 Brezinski moved to Berlin, writing letters to his New York friends, often asking for money. Artist and friend Julie Jo Fehrle, while visiting East Berlin, saw painted graffiti, I HATE YOU in all-caps that she recognized from a Brezinski painting she owned, and eventually found the artist in a shabby squatters' apartment. She bought him food for a few days before leaving.

Despite the squalor, and a violent assault in a bar, he continued to paint.

Edward Brezinski in the 1980s (photo: courtesy Red Splat Films)  

On a trip back to Detroit, director Vincent tours the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, where Neo-expressionist works are on display and clearly show their influence on Brezinski. More background biographical interviews with surviving relatives reveal aspects of how his childhood affected his life, including his mother's death when he was 16.

Brezinski died in 2007 in a hotel in Nice, allegedly. Vincent's film goes on to try to decipher the facts of his disappearance. Despite having obituaries written, his body was never found.

The last part of the film involves the filmmakers and two friends — former punk musician Marguerite Van Cook, and her partner James Romberger — attempting to get information about Brezinski's "death" in Nice, to no success. Their eventual discovery in Cannes is bittersweet, as is a posthumous inclusion of a few of his works in a group retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Edward Brezinski never achieved the fame and fortune he desired. But like many other artists, after his death, a reevaluation of his art continues to evolve.

'Make Me Famous' screens locally Oct. 15 6pm at the Roxie Theater, 3125 16th St. ($5-$15); and screens from Oct. 19 through Nov. 3, 7:30pm at the 4 Star Theater, 2200 Clement St. ($12.50-$15). Both Oct. 15 and Oct. 19 screenings include a Q&A with director Brian Vincent and producer Heather Spore. www.red-splat.com www.roxie.com www.4-star-movies.com

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