Not long ago, I found myself reading Jeremy Sigler’s 2009 interview with Eileen Myles in The Brooklyn Rail. The occasion was a new book by Myles, but the conversation opens with banter about clothing—“I’m pretty critical of the J. Crew catalogue, which I have to confess I love looking through”—as though the pair had met for a drink instead of an interview. And then, toward the end of their time together, Sigler mentions Larry Rivers’s famous nude portrait of Frank O’Hara: “I think this is my idealization of the poet,” he says; Myles calls it “collaborated outrageousness.” Earlier this fall, Tibor de Nagy Gallery opened a small survey of Rivers’s work, including the O’Hara painting—an opportunity, in other words, for Myles and Sigler to continue their conversation, wherever it may lead. (With gratitude to Andrew Arnot, owner of Tibor de Nagy Gallery.) —Nicole Rudick
MYLES: I guess we maybe want to start with the famous one.
SIGLER: Yeah. I’ve never seen this painting in person, actually. Have you?
MYLES: I feel like I have, but that may or may not be true.
SIGLER: I’ve seen the drawing that was on the cover of one of O’Hara’s books.
SIGLER: Which Andrew said is missing—the drawing is actually gone, he said.
MYLES: Who said?
MYLES: Gone from where it was? Where was it?
SIGLER: A collector who owned it said it was stolen.
MYLES: From where? From their house?
SIGLER: Yeah, something like that. But this is … this is really something else.
MYLES: Yeah. I think it’s kind of a good painting.
SIGLER: Yeah. I mean, look at that cinder block.
MYLES: I know, I had the same feeling. The hair on his chest, too. And, of course, Frank’s dick.
SIGLER: It’s front and center.
MYLES: He’s sort of boundaryless, which is amazing, like he’s sitting in time in this fuzzy, profound way.
SIGLER: It’s effortless, too—the painting just sort of comes right out. It’s brushed right on there. I mean, of course that’s what painters do, but he makes it look easy.
MYLES: It feels drawing-ish.
MYLES: But look where we are. One, two, three, four, five—five chicks, five ladies, and this is the only male nude. There is something feminine about it, too. The face seems to me very androgynous, but when I say androgynous, I’m used to saying androgynous when I mean “a woman who looks masculine.” But this is about a man who looks feminine—he could be a lady at the court.
SIGLER: He seems to understand the psychology of being naked.
MYLES: “He” being Larry?
SIGLER: Larry, yeah. Well, both. It’s an exhibitionistic painting—Frank obviously knew what he was getting into here.
MYLES: He agreed. It was hanging in MoMA originally, right?
SIGLER: I don’t know.
MYLES: I think so. I think there was a bit of a scandale, because you couldn’t have somebody who was working at the museum have a nude portrait of themselves.
SIGLER: Conflict of interest.
MYLES: This could be fake history, but I seem to remember this.
SIGLER: I mean, think about today, how politically correct you have to be in an office situation. If you’re not allowed to tell a joke—
MYLES: Well, that’s the story, but it seems to me that we’re constantly encountering contradictions. The whole Harvey Weinstein thing—like, how many guys just routinely invite females into corners and jerk off? And then years pass.
SIGLER: This “massage me” thing, “come over and give me a massage.”
MYLES: Well, that’s even further down the road. Most recently she was just in a little cul de sac and then he started jerking off.
MYLES: Yeah. That was his thing. But let’s not give him so much time. The thing that’s outrageous about this, continually, is that O’Hara’s male. That’s the thing that’s completely unique about that.
SIGLER: I mean, it has to be the greatest nude male portrait. I can’t think of anything that rivals it.
MYLES: Until you get to Mapplethorpe.
SIGLER: Yes. It’s a beauty. How do you feel about the sexuality of it?
MYLES: What do you mean, “How do I feel?”
SIGLER: I mean, is it provocative to you?
MYLES: Well, yeah. I think it’s provocative to everybody, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a little bit softly demanding, seems to me.
SIGLER: It’s intimate.
MYLES: Yeah. It’s not a nude—he’s naked.
SIGLER: Oh, can we talk about the boots? We have to talk about the boots.
MYLES: Sure. That’s him giving Frank his butchness, I think. He kept his boots on. Then we have him as somebody who is a man fucking somebody. That means that he has some purchase on power. But tell me what you’re thinking.
SIGLER: I like the way we were talking about it a few years ago. Somehow we got into the concept that a poet should stand naked in his boots. I think you said that you identified with that idea, as a poet, that the metaphor of being naked and still having the boots on is like Duchamp traveling with his toothbrush—you’re ready to go.
MYLES: Exactly. I think it means that you can run. All you need is to throw on a shirt—otherwise you’re female.
SIGLER: So it’s a pretty important detail.
MYLES: It’s a really important detail. How did they negotiate that? Did Frank say, Let me keep my boots on? Also, was this planned? Had they had sex and Larry said, Let me paint you? That’s the implication here. I don’t know if I think that’s true, but it sort of seems like an announcement that they’ve had sex. It’s all this abstraction business over here. The abstraction part of it is pretty good. I feel that about a lot of the paintings—the abstract parts are actually pretty great.
SIGLER: Well, he studied with Hans Hofmann, so it’s almost like he just took that method of brushing a little this way, that way, up and down, across—these big, bold brush marks. And then he started putting objects and figures into the painting. Early Pop.
MYLES: It was someplace where you had Jane Freilicher, on the one hand, and de Kooning, on the other. And Pop is where it’s going, but it’s not quite there. It’s sort of in the hallway, and I think that’s probably why he’s not so famous now, because he was … What do you call that?
SIGLER: He was ambiguous?
MYLES: No, there’s a name for something that’s in between.
SIGLER: Equivocating? Something like that?
MYLES: Yeah, but it’s a something figure?
SIGLER: Oh, literally in art?
MYLES: Yeah, or just in theory. Like an object that wasn’t the thing you were really thinking about, but it’s sort of holding the space.
SIGLER: These pinup girls are not as interesting, are they?
MYLES: No, I don’t think so.
SIGLER: Is it that there’s no tension? Or there’s no intimacy?
MYLES: For me, there’s no ownership. I don’t feel the feeling. I feel like he wanted to use different materials and do something else. Maybe this colored one I like the best, for some reason.
SIGLER: But they don’t have any of that tenderness.
MYLES: They remind me of a piece … What was his name? Lindner? Pop Art—the guy that did phone booths and these kind of techno beings? It was this cold-ass part of Pop Art.
SIGLER: When he’s painting on canvas and there’s this shimmering light, but also this nervous scratchy feeling in the line, it’s almost like the soft light mixed with his anxiety, with his nervous system.
MYLES: Look at the drawing. He could really draw.
SIGLER: He also was a musician. I don’t know how good he was at sax—was he any good? Did you ever hear him play?
MYLES: It was just part of being a poet. Larry Rivers and all the old guys would get up and play their jazz. It’s like an old guy thing—I’m gonna have a band now.
MYLES: Doesn’t Paul Muldoon do it? Anne Sexton did it! It’s something I always meant to do.
SIGLER: You could be in a band.
MYLES: Yeah, let’s not go there.
SIGLER: But I read that he was also friends with Miles Davis.
MYLES: Wow. But it doesn’t mean anything about how he played.
SIGLER: No, but it kind of gives him some cred. It has to be said that he’s an uneven painter— that’s sort of the point. It’s hit or miss, right?
MYLES: So often I feel like his style is trying everybody else’s style.
SIGLER: Yes. And he’s also painting other people’s paintings, literally. There’s a Matisse in this one. There’s a de Kooning.
MYLES: Did he have some sort of a career as a graphic artist? I think he might have had some commercial gig. Because this is like Jane Freilicher 3-D, right?
MYLES: Is this the Matisse?
SIGLER: This is the Matisse, yeah. But then he does a cheesy thing, like put a Matisse back there. Is he caught up in the moment or—
MYLES: Just for the sake of the recording, I’ll say it’s this yellow, cloudy shape, which is part of a garment, and it has these dark orange streaks in them, and there’s something really satisfying and cool about it.
SIGLER: Right, but he must also be feeling very audacious as he’s doing it, because he’s appropriating. Because I feel like if he’s painting it, he must be getting some kind of kick.
MYLES: When you paint in somebody else’s style, that’s actually not appropriation, is it?
SIGLER: Not really, no. It’s more like an homage.
MYLES: I like the flowers, too. It’s almost like it’s a number of things that I would like alone. It seems like the art of removal.
SIGLER: He has to fill every part of the canvas. He made a lot of work, and in the early work he left large expanses untouched. He played with letting light in.
MYLES: Yes! This one makes me nuts, because all I can think of is a side of beef, and the kind of restaurant that would let you know the cut you were getting. And what we’re looking at is a female figure with nipples pointed out, and it says “Sutek.” I guess we’re getting a language lesson. Is it Polish? I don’t know.
SIGLER: The sexism of the unabashed macho-male-testosterone quality of the work is offensive.
MYLES: Or simply the woman, as with the others, is what is there to be painted. It’s a little bit up there with the “just grab the pussy.” Maybe that’s true, maybe everybody does.
SIGLER: What about this one? This one is really “grab the pussy” right there.
MYLES: I like it, though. I think it’s really kind of a great painting. Well, what do you mean, “Grab the pussy?” Nobody’s grabbing a pussy right there.
SIGLER: Uh, it’s close.
MYLES: You have the spread eagle, you have two girls hanging out together. It’s strange. It’s a little bit censored. I think it’s kind of beautiful.
SIGLER: This painting seems honest, to me. He has this one side of him that’s inquisitive and curious, and then the other side is arrogant and in-your-face, like blah blah blah.
MYLES: Well, this seems like it’s between a sketch and a painting. And it’s also the thing you were just saying—there’s an emptiness here. And this is a kind of Cy Twombly emptiness. And this—I don’t know why I assume it’s a bed back there, but whatever that is, that bright, hard pattern thing.
SIGLER: No one’s gonna know what we’re talking about.
MYLES: Well, that’s why I’m trying to throw in a little description.
SIGLER: You’re doing great.
MYLES: But over here too, they’re both whited out. I don’t know what that means, but it’s interesting, because he knows that he’s presenting a pussy, and then he’s somehow bandaging it in white.
SIGLER: Isn’t that maybe underwear?
MYLES: Well …
SIGLER: I mean, I don’t think he’s bandaging it.
MYLES: Bandaging isn’t the right word, but I don’t know how else to put it.
SIGLER: It’s sort of gauzy.
MYLES: It’s like he’s over-painting or repainting, but he didn’t do it, and so, again, it’s an in-between object.
SIGLER: It’s hard to tell what’s going on.
MYLES: And I like that. There’s something literary about this one. This is the one, if I were to buy, I would take this. It has this kind of notebook drawing with flowers up here on the top, and this is kind of a weird collage.
SIGLER: It is nice. It’s a little bit like Jean-Michel Basquiat.
MYLES: Yeah. This a very interesting thing, and it’s the most in-between Larry that hits that note.
SIGLER: The line never lets up.
MYLES: Larry—was he an immigrant?
Yes, I think so.
MYLES: And was Basquiat?
SIGLER: I don’t remember. I think so.
MYLES: We’ll have to do some research. We have to tell Nicole to include a note.
MYLES: There’s so much pattern in this one. These little elbow marks down here, the stripes here and all the scribbles up here.
SIGLER: It’s dirty.
MYLES: Yeah, it’s dirty.
SIGLER: You feel that everything, at some point, got tossed on the floor of the studio or thrown around a little. He was not as careful with his materials as I think so many artists are these days. It’s refreshing just to see him work, to do stuff. I don’t think he had a master plan.
MYLES: It’s a little bottley.
SIGLER: A little what?
MYLES: Bodily. The scale of it feels like you can feel the artist making choices and dancing and moving in front of it.
SIGLER: Let’s talk about this Camel. This is essentially the most abstract pack of Camel cigarettes that you can possibly have, right?
SIGLER: You can feel the nicotine, you can feel this sense of him burning up. I know he was a speed demon on his motorcycle, and he seems to have had I don’t know how many wives, drug habits. It’s like he’s burning the candle at both ends, and my impression is that he must have been a heavy drinker.
MYLES: Though he’s one of the interesting characters that endured. You don’t hear those stories about Alex Katz—whatever his life was or is, I never heard about him being a wild man. Larry seems to be one of those who was endangered when he was young but made that decision to invest in a future—and probably the work changes then, too.
SIGLER: You mean like a survival ability?
SIGLER: If he had been a poet, and not an artist, he probably would have died younger, one imagines.
MYLES: Because he wouldn’t have had any money? Is that what that means?
SIGLER: He seems to have been industrious, is what I mean. He used art to its fullest.
MYLES: And you mean poets are not industrious?
SIGLER: Yeah. We can’t make work. You feel like he could fill a studio with work, and it could all feel like product, on some level.
MYLES: Yeah. We don’t have work to do, and he did, and also he had a place to do it. Again, this is all based on the fact that he had a career, and he had gotten to a certain place, because lots of painters have no place to do it, or torture the people in their lives by making inappropriate places to do it, and everything else has to be subjugated to them, because they didn’t become successful enough.
SIGLER: Was he always successful?
MYLES: Pretty early on, I think. There was something called The $64,000 Question. Do you know this story?
MYLES: It was a TV quiz show that he was on, and won. He had this weird life. Everybody said this about him, always—he was lucky. Talented and charismatic, but also, just, stuff happened to him.
SIGLER: That’s what I was sort of saying—charmed in some way. It’s not like he was burning out, though he was burning the candle at both ends. You think with Basquiat—Basquiat burned out pretty fast. I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison.
MYLES: But it’s a fact. There also is the different way of being in the world as a big, tall white man, and not a smaller black guy, who was so wildly successful so young. They’re just different human beings. Do you like the Camel?
SIGLER: I’m not so sure that it’s a completely resolved painting, but I like that he painted a cigarette pack. I like that it’s there. I feel comfortable in front of it.
MYLES: It makes me think about still lifes, which is to say that when I think about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painters in the studio, I think of skulls and flowers and female nudes and bones and apples and dead fish. But they didn’t have “products” as such. Maybe they did, but you never see labels.
SIGLER: Well, I suppose the Dutch still lifes are filled with fishes and all the things that you’d bring back from markets.
MYLES: Yeah, but the market wasn’t a brand.
SIGLER: No. Well, there was no packaging, really.
MYLES: Yeah. It’s the art of advertising—I guess that’s another American flag, in a way. The Pop thing that you said earlier is really true. This is like, again, Pop abstraction. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t get it was a Camel right away. And I like that—it feels like fuzzy photography.
SIGLER: When you put Warhol and his Campbell soup cans next to this, it’s another animal, right? He took it to the point of—
MYLES: It is that.
SIGLER: Yeah. It is that.
MYLES: A little more Duchamp. And this is a little more Abstract Expressionist.
SIGLER: I’d like to see a hundred of them. I’d like to see him just do another one.
MYLES: And then another, and then another.
SIGLER: Just keep it going.
MYLES: That’s really great. But I feel like just the fact that you say that is a critique. It seems to me that when you have somebody who continually has to do a new thing, another novelty every time … There are moments of his art that we really love, but because he had this compulsion to keep being new, you see the wages of that in certain ways.
SIGLER: I think that’s what I was saying before. I was hinting at that when I said the whole point is being uneven, that it’s hit or miss. I think your way of putting it is much nicer, because if in fact you have that love for novelty and you’re always quickly moving onto the next thing, you’re going to make a lot of bad choices.
MYLES: Right. And it’s a little bit American. It’s Pop in a different way. It’s sort of like you’re very mode of industry is American—serial production is something different. I wonder if I’m going to ruin our recording if I answer a text. What do you think?
SIGLER: Let’s stop.
MYLES: Really? Don’t stop. I don’t think we should stop.
SIGLER: Okay. I’m just saying pause it.
MYLES: Can you pause? I don’t know if you can pause.
SIGLER: Oh—it’ll start a new recording.
MYLES: I think so. You’re recording, right?
MYLES: I just have to say yes to somebody. I just have to meet Felix at two.
SIGLER: I have to say, this is a real dud. This is a problem.
MYLES: Well, yes and no. I mean, it’s a de Kooning rip-off. Look at that face—crazy.
SIGLER: All right, I’ll get really personal—I don’t like the way de Kooning looks in the painting.
MYLES: Is that de Kooning?
SIGLER: Yeah, that’s supposed to be de Kooning.
MYLES: So that must be a late de Kooning.
SIGLER: Yeah. I like the way his painting looks in the painting, but I don’t like the way he made Bill look.
SIGLER: He looks a little awkward, maybe a little pudgy, a little overweight. He doesn’t look handsome the way de Kooning looked.
MYLES: Well, he probably knew de Kooning, so he probably knew a lot about de Kooning—maybe it’s drunk de Kooning. I thought it was a diorama, which is really funny. It’s like an art-world art history. He’s doing de Kooning’s painting, and then he puts de Kooning in it. It’s like a funny anthropological take on his own culture. Yeah, I’m not crazy about it, but then there’s something about the 3-D-ness of those figures that, I don’t know, I feel amused or entertained, or slightly delighted. It’s like Madame Tussaud’s—it’s so wrong that it starts to … it’s like the flowers. They start to jump out at me.
SIGLER: That’s what I was thinking before about Pop in general. Putting this sort of bland banal object on the wall—is that an expression of interest in being obnoxious or irreverent?
MYLES: I think it’s a gleeful Marxism that loves cash nonetheless. You’re seeing that this is a labor that we’re doing, making this incredibly well-designed can of soup. It’s like social realism.
SIGLER: Right, but there’s also some way in which the Pop artists were trying to outdo one another with the banal. Like, okay, I’m going to even out-banal you.
MYLES: But every time they landed on banal, it wasn’t banal. It ended up being profound. Because you made the machine stop for a second. Who did the cartoons, the comic strips? Lichtenstein. Some of those are amazing.
SIGLER: They’re amazing.
MYLES: And then he does some landscapes that are just cartoons. Have you ever seen those? I love those. He’s doing what Larry Rivers is doing, in a different way. He’s sort of laughing at the history of art in a Pop way. I guess Larry’s the king of the intermediary object—that’s the word.
SIGLER: It’s true. He’s on the cusp of Happenings, and that whole culture as well. I don’t think he ever, like Rauschenberg, performed in intermediate Fluxus-type events.
MYLES: But he would have, if he were a minute younger.
SIGLER: That’s where the sax comes in, and the jazz of the whole experience. He’s sort of living in his own movie.
MYLES: But he’s too messy for that, too. In a Happening, everybody is conscious of the nature of the experiment, in this kind of awe. You’re just doing your thing, but you’re letting everybody else do their thing, too, whereas I feel Larry was on everybody else—more dominant. A lot of this is like a mouse crawling up an elephant’s leg with the intention of rape. There’s some hubris.
SIGLER: You could say this whole room is hubris. This moment we’re living in—the Trump moment—is hubristic. You just feel like, Where are we headed?
MYLES: It’s gallows hubris.
SIGLER: It’s unbelievable. Even just his statement yesterday—“This is the calm before the storm,” he said.
MYLES: And he’s playing with the news cycle. He’s playing with us. It was like, I have the power to push the buttons, and I might do it, I might do it tomorrow, and you don’t even know why. Andy told me a story just moments ago about Tibor and Larry, and that they would come in together, and they were these unlike guys from different class backgrounds, and they walked away, and Tibor was like, I love Larry, and Larry was like, I love Tibor. And his hubris was somehow … He was like the dog jumping up on you, but you would allow it because he was sort of adorable. People loved and were charmed by this man.
SIGLER: I don’t think it would be fair to compare him, the way we are, to Trump in that sense.
MYLES: Though I think the women in his life might have a different … that’s where the Trump comparison might start to be accurate.
SIGLER: There was a lot of womanizing, right?
SIGLER: Like here, is the woman and her pubic hair, for example, the brunt of a joke?
MYLES: I don’t think so.
SIGLER: But that’s kind of vulgar, right?
MYLES: Yeah, but I think vulgar is not necessarily bad.
SIGLER: I’m just curious if this painting functions as a bad joke, the way de Kooning gets a lot of flack for his—
MYLES: Woman paintings?
SIGLER: Yeah. I could see a bunch of men standing around in the fifties laughing at this painting. It’s kind of a grotesque.
MYLES: I wouldn’t go that far with it.
SIGLER: I like the painting, actually.
MYLES: See, I think maybe I don’t like the painting.
SIGLER: Well, it’s all about the legs and the underwear, right?
MYLES: There’s a heaviness, and it’s all about what’s going on in there.
SIGLER: But he definitely gets those big expanses to work, in the sense of a Hans Hofmann or a de Kooning—you can feel him still being, in many ways, an abstract painter.
MYLES: Oh yeah.
SIGLER: This little hairline—
MYLES: That’s really my favorite thing in it. It’s great.
SIGLER: New Jersey. It just says New Jersey in there. Hey look—there is another Camel. He didn’t give up on it.
MYLES: Yeah. It’s so weird—the Camels just remind me of the covers of poetry books and poetry magazines.
SIGLER: I guess he and Jim Dine were probably two painters who could do lettering that looks great on the cover of poetry books.
MYLES: And now they completely date those poetry books.
SIGLER: I guess Ted Berrigan has a few.
SIGLER: Kenneth Koch, definitely.
MYLES: Right. So sometimes it’s hard to even see them as paintings. But that labeling strikes me as not accidental. They’re literary paintings, in a way.
SIGLER: We should talk about the fact that we’re standing in Tibor de Nagy and it’s really historically the hub of the New York School. You came to New York, you once told me, and you really wanted to locate O’Hara. The poems themselves were like a map of New York City for you.
MYLES: Well, I came to New York and he was gone, so I was understanding this poetry community and characters like Larry Rivers all in relation to this absent poet.
SIGLER: And of course Larry gave the eulogy at his funeral, which was apparently very moving, very heavy.
MYLES: Weirdly, my new book is sort of based a little bit on that, because I understood that that was an artist’s gesture, to say the most dramatic, horrendous thing as an homage.
SIGLER: What did he say?
MYLES: He talked about, literally, what O’Hara looked like in the hospital bed, dying, with tubes in and out of his body, and his head swollen. He painted it in words. It was an amazing gesture. It struck me as, Is that performance art? Is that poetry? Is that painting? Is that sculpture? What is that? And the effect that it had had on an audience. So when I started thinking about a dog’s dying, I thought of it really as an homage to that.
SIGLER: So it’s really on your mind right now—
MYLES: In this funny way. But isn’t it true that as poets we know Larry Rivers as Frank O’Hara’s lover and friend? That’s what defines him now.
SIGLER: Certainly. It’s nice to be dealing with his art. I feel really happy that we have the paintings here to look at, and we’re not just talking about him as a hipster or just a cool guy who was around a sort of mythologized figure, because his contribution is potentially very lasting, very permanent. I have a funny feeling a lot of this work, while it is kind of going in and out of being dated and not looking so good anymore—you wonder whether it’s coming back.
MYLES: That same thing! That it’s in and out of focus.
SIGLER: He represents not only the New York School, but he’s also a Beat character, right? So in a sense you can look him the way we might look at Robert Frank, or some people of that generation.
MYLES: Well, the New York School was a little Beat. It was sort of coeval. What was that thing O’Hara said? I’m a little too square for the hips, and too hip for the squares. Again, I would say that that was the case for this guy.
SIGLER: Right. I think that’s what you were saying before about this—it’s almost like he’s a little too square here because he’s actually being precise in a funny way about—
MYLES: It’s all there. There’s an absence of removal.
SIGLER: It’s so uncool. It’s a totally uncool painting.
SIGLER: And yet the cigarettes—that’s cool, right? In a James Dean way, that’s almost like, Check it out, I’m painting a cool pack of smokes.
MYLES: But it’s not cool, it’s kitschy. Look at this one—’97.
MYLES: I know, right? I just saw that.
SIGLER: That’s hilarious.
MYLES: Holy shit! So this is ancient history, it’s not contemporary. It’s really funny. It’s an homage to de Kooning, which we always knew, but it’s one that de Kooning never saw. I can’t remember when de Kooning died, but if he was alive, he was so wet-brained.
SIGLER: He may have still been—no, ’97, no, I don’t think so.
MYLES: How do you know? When did he die?
SIGLER: Maybe ’93.
MYLES: I don’t want to stop our recording.
SIGLER: I feel like we’ve done it.
MYLES: I think we’ve done it—we’re in our final waltz-through. Love this. Amazing.
SIGLER: We’ve got to make sure we get a picture of that.
MYLES: An elegant, perfect little painting. I love the lesbian couple. The way that I love that he loves women is this—he was absolutely the kind of man who would just love dykes, because it would be, like, more! More naked women! Women on women! I wouldn’t disinclude him from being one the guys who would say, Hey, let me join in. But there’s also a kind of awe at the party he can’t be a part of but is excited about.
SIGLER: His bisexuality comes through, right?
MYLES: Yes, exactly. This feels like a bisexual gaze. Though this feels very heterosexual Polack.
SIGLER: I guess that is his bisexuality—on one side, a very heterosexual gaze, and then on the other, a very homosexual gaze.
MYLES: I think there’s a great lesbian in him.
SIGLER: I love thinking of it as a great lesbian painting.
MYLES: I do, too. Let’s talk about that.
SIGLER: Let’s try to nail this down, First of all, how cheesy is it that he puts the name O’Hara there? I mean, that’s cheesy in an audacious way.
MYLES: But it also weirdly defines it as a historical painting. I feel like that makes it be a general—there’s a triumph of some war won here. Even the hat is Napoleonic. It’s a three-cornered hat.
SIGLER: Oh yeah, you’re right.
MYLES: It’s like a woman with a dick.
SIGLER: Yeah. I guess that would pretty much define it. But do you think he captured a side of Frank that he saw or that came out of their relationship, or was this the Frank that everyone knew?
MYLES: I think this is the Frank of history. It’s intimate and loving, but then the face is a little general.
SIGLER: It’s a little too soft.
MYLES: I was just talking with a friend, a painter named Larry Collins, and he does portraits of guys who died in Vietnam, and he makes a point of the fact that it doesn’t look like them, because that puts it more on the edge of Greek and Roman style. It’s an idealized portrait. This is a little bit like that. It’s almost why he had to say “O’Hara,” because that face seems a little timid.
SIGLER: It’s such a great painting.
MYLES: It’s such a great painting.
SIGLER: It’s really ahead of the others. No pun intended.
MYLES: Ahead of the others—where’s the pun?
SIGLER: The head.
MYLES: Oh. I think we should take pictures.
SIGLER: I mean, it’s a painting about giving head, right?
MYLES: I wouldn’t have necessarily thought that, but you’re right—it’s an invitation.
SIGLER: Especially with his arms up like that.
MYLES: Right—so it’s an offering.
MYLES: What’s interesting is that he’s making an offering of his lover, but kind of to history.
SIGLER: If I compare it to every other thing we looked at in the gallery, it seems like it’s on another level, another plane—maybe because we love Frank O’Hara so much, too.
MYLES: But I do think the suggestion is that if you look at a poet in your life, if you paint him, you will become a legend, too. Because that’s what this painting did for Larry Rivers. He saw the poet and the poet saw him, and he became part of something maybe even bigger than his own art career.
SIGLER: It seems like an impulse to record not just one’s self but the whole scene—like that John Jonas Gruen book I was showing you before, all those portraits up in the Hamptons, of Jane Wilson, Leonard Bernstein …
MYLES: It’s that impulse to make us history, to say “our thing” and “our crowd.”
SIGLER: I think you have that as a poet. I don’t feel like I quite have that, because maybe I feel like I didn’t spend enough time at the Poetry Project when I was in my thirties or something.
MYLES: You didn’t come with a gang.
SIGLER: Yeah. I don’t feel like I have a strong sense of poetry community.
MYLES: You mean that you think it’s in my work?
SIGLER: Yeah, I think it just comes across in who you are and your work, don’t you?
MYLES: I think the community gave me my work. It wasn’t an M.F.A. program—it was that church, that crowd, that whole way of making things.
SIGLER: I see that as very much an extension of this.
MYLES: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It all came in the absence of this guy, so again, we’re all sort of implicit in this painting.
. Neither Rivers nor Basquiat were immigrants. Rivers was born in the Bronx to immigrants from the Ukraine. Basquiat was born in Brooklyn; his father was a Haitian immigrant. —N.R.
Eileen Myles is the author, most recently, of Afterglow (a dog memoir).
Jeremy Sigler is the author, most recently, of My Vibe and is coeditor of Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place 1958–2010.