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Elizabeth Isadora Gold| Longreads | September 2020 | 4,633 words (18 minutes)
It was 1981, in the Olde City section of Philadelphia. I was six. My parents were artists — my dad a cellist/composer/arranger and my mom a potter and teacher — and our tiny bathroom showed it. On one whole wall, my mom hung a poster of the San Francisco baths circa 1890, with lots of gents in one-piece suits and ladies in frilly bathing bonnets. By the toilet, on cinder block-and-board shelves, were stacks and stacks of magazines, New Yorkers, mostly. Postcards framed the mirror over the sink, fleshy vintage nudies with bobbed hair, standing in chorus lines.
But more than the naked ladies, or the boring New Yorker cartoons, I’d stare at a framed print by our friend Stuart Horn. The words “Find Yourself” were in bold type at the top. It looked like a fake high-school yearbook page: five rows of headshots, with names typed under them: “Jim” under a blank-looking man; “Carol” under a black lady with an Afro.
My parents told me it was mail art, but Stuart didn’t mail it to us. It was a collage he Xeroxed. He made a zillion copies and mailed them to a zillion other mail artists. Whoever they were. Mail artists were literal: they mailed each other art. A whole network of weirdos, some “professional artists,” some “Eleanor Rigby”-esque lonely people, some who just liked the postal service. They had lists of each other’s addresses, and everyone exchanged copies. The only expense was Xeroxing and stamps. Truly art for the people.
Who would I be in those rows of photos? I would wonder from my bath. Was the guy who looked like Mr. Rogers with the name “Jose” printed beneath him really the kindest-man-on-earth/a.k.a. star of the TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? He was famous, but “Jim” and “Carol” were not. Then there was “G. Gordon Liddy,” whose name I’d heard, but whose identity was mysterious (he had something to do with Watergate and Nixon, which was something my parents talked about a lot). Would I ever look like those grownups? Why did Stuart make the print? To be funny? It was art, but both plainer and more mysterious than a painting or sculpture.
To Stuart’s art-scene collaborators, John Musall and Woofy Bubbles, Stuart was a fount of off-kilter brilliance, especially when appearing in his own fucked up cabaret, Horn and Hard Art. To my composer father, and the animator Paul Fierlinger, he was a cut-and-paste poet who could transform a string of nonsense words or patter into Cole Porter-esque couplets for their theme songs for Romper Room and the Sesame Street’s Teeny Little Super Guy series. To fellow “correspondence artists,” such as Ray Johnson, Stuart, under the nom de plume Northwest Mounted Valise, was a prolific and edgy mail artist, a sort of 2-D Joseph Cornell. The Museum of Modern Art and the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College holds Northwest Mounted Valise’s work.
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To me, Stuart was a writer, a collector of natural and manmade ephemera, a deadpan wit, my first writing teacher, and first grownup friend. He took the dross of culture and refashioned it to become funnier, sharper, more poignant — arranging trash, writing absurd lyrics about Nixon and Patty Hearst, cutting up news and rewriting it, asking us to “find ourselves” by putting Fred Rogers in the middle of the page, under the wrong name.
In two decades of knowing, talking to, and learning from Stuart Horn — about art, bohemian life, queer life, moss collections, television, hip hop, poetry, drugs, bullshit v. not bullshit — I never asked him about “Find Yourself.” There would always be another conversation, until there wasn’t.
In the early ’80s, Olde City was still an ungentrified neighborhood of warehouses and factories beginning to close shop and Colonial-era historic sites (spruced up for the recent Bicentennial). Artists were moving into the area, refurbishing the old warehouses into lofts, trash picking from the factories’ refuse, even holding a circus in a vacant lot. Our labrador retriever walked himself through the alleyways like a Disney dog, and friends would call to tell us they’d seen him. Reenactors in Colonial garb worked at local historical sites like the Betsy Ross House and Ben Franklin’s Print Shop. I played pretend games on our tiny stoop and did my best to roller-skate on cobblestones.
Stuart lived above Liberty Bell Pizza, in a third-floor loft with big windows looking out over Market Street, between 2nd and 3rd. To visit Stuart, my parents and I would stand out on the sidewalk and yell, “Yo! Stuart!” I loved hollering up to friends in their lofts, waiting for them to lean out the window, head and shoulders dangling out into space.
“He-ey,” Stuart would shout back, his unshaven-with-a-mustache face smiling down. He’d throw his keys, and we’d jump aside and pick them up off the dirty sidewalk, and then we’d walk up his narrow, pizza-sauce-smelling stairs, and he’d be waiting for us at the door.
Once inside, the decor was so proto-art freak that when I saw Pee Wee’s Playhouse I wondered if the director knew Stuart. He had vinyl ’50s chairs and kidney-shaped coffee tables long before the trash-picked vintage aesthetic went super-cool. And he had collections: McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes shaped like spaceships in all the colors, which he’d set up with Fisher-Price Little People. Moss he’d collected on weekend nature walks. Rocks with suggestive shapes.
The place was like a toy store, but so were a lot of places. Neubauer’s was a bodega-sized storefront that sold overstock — including cardboard boxes full of jingle bells in assorted sizes. Picking them up and letting them fall through my fingers was almost more satisfying than buying them. Franklin Novelties on Arch Street had drawers full of baby doll faces, doll legs, and mini plastic airplanes. We made my birthday party favors out of them. My mom always had tiny dolls from Franklin Novelties for decorating or hiding somewhere. It all sounds fantastical now, Slaves of New York meets Eloise, but it was my life, and in many ways it was idyllic.
Philly’s art scene has always been more intimate, funkier, less commercial than New York’s. Not chic. No one was making Big Money. In Philly, all the artists went to the Continental Diner at Second and Market just a couple of blocks from our house. A shellac-haired Portuguese lady sat and tatted black lace by the register, and I would order the spaghetti and (single) meatball from the kids’ menu. Soup or salad. Roll. Ice cream. Grapefruit juice. And all our friends were there, too, eating the soup or salad from the laminated menu. Stuart, John Musall, and Woofy were Continental regulars.
John Musall was a theater guy and Stuart’s roommate. He describes daily life with Stuart: “Stuart read the newspapers cover to cover [every day] and would snip out bits and put them in piles, and then kept them in his Northwest Mounted Valise, an actual suitcase … He was the best scissors man I’ve ever known. Carefully trimming around all this stuff with giant scissors and putting the collages together whenever he felt he should. [His work is] visual poetry.” John puts it into the context of “William Burrows snipping up bits and re-combining cultural product. David Bowie and David Byrne too … Collage has been going on since … the German Dada artists.”
Stuart’s work fits in the genre of mail art, itself part of the Fluxus movement. According to the University of Iowa’s “Fluxus: A Field Guide,” the Lithuanian composer George Maciunas invented Fluxus in the mid-1950s, as a genre encompassing “the intersection of action music, sound and concrete poetries, mail art, and conceptualism.” Major practitioners of Fluxus include (but are hardly limited to) John Cage, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Yoko Ono, and (most notably for Stuart) Ray Johnson. The ultimate Fluxus art piece was the “Happening,” a proto-performance art event/prank/nothing in which the artist and audience interacted and sometimes melded. Or not.
As a sort of pop art/Fluxus crossover/pollinator, Ray Johnson was Mail Art’s “founder” as well as its instigator. According to his estate’s website, Johnson was “one of the first conceptualists … Johnson sought out the random and the ephemeral, incorporating chance operations into his artistic practice with ‘mail art.’” Circa 1962, Johnson named his movement (with misspelling intended) the New York Correspondance School, with a global network of practitioners and participants.
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Mail art’s purpose was its malleability, which extended even to authorship. Johnson held an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1970. The Northwest Mounted Valise was one of the other artists he invited to participate in “his” show, exhibiting, according to an article in (of all places) Rolling Stone, “worn envelopes, stickers, collages and ‘messages’ of every description. … Johnson’s ‘school’ constitutes, in effect, a continuous happening by mail,” the Rolling Stone piece continues. Though to be precise, Johnson called his happenings “nothings.”
John Musall remembers a “nothing” when Johnson visited Philly for a lecture at Moore College of Art in the ’70s. He, Stuart, and Johnson were walking to the talk after dinner together. He told me, “As we’re walking down this alley, Ray picks up a trash can lid, and there’s a dead pigeon there. He exclaims he always knows where the dead pigeons are. He picks it up, … and Ray sat there petting the dead pigeon through his lecture.”
In the aftermath of the ’60s, Johnson moved to Locust Valley, New York. He appointed Stuart editor of his publication, The Weekly Breeder. From Johnson’s Archives: “On April 5, 1973, Johnson declared the ‘death’ of the New York Correspondance School (sic) in an unpublished letter to the Obituary Department of The New York Times but continued to practice mail art under this and other rubrics.” His coda: in 1995, locals saw Johnson dive off a bridge into Sag Harbor, and then backstroke out to sea. While it was suicide, Johnson also appeared to make his own death a final “happening,” by performing it with such visibility.
The first time my folks heard of Stuart was because he’d started a sperm bank. It was the late ’60s-early ’70s (getting any of my sources to nail down a date between say the years 1967-1972 is a challenge). The gallerist John Ollman, a former art school pal of my mom, confirmed the piece in more detail in an interview for Invisible City: Philadelphia and the Vernacular Avant-garde, explaining it was part of a “Museum of Degenerate Art,” which was a response to the Nazi’s 1937 exhibition of “Entartete Kunst“ (degenerate art). “It was with Ray Johnson and Anna Banana,” John explains, “it was titled ‘Put a Little Love Away,’ which was the tag phrase for the Philadelphia Savings Fund. Stuart [asked] friends and acquaintances to submit a piece to the show, and they were to submit sperm … in any way they chose. People actually did send it in. At the opening, he had a [bank] teller’s booth … and this woman giving blow jobs. I saw jail in my future.”
“You could make deposits and withdrawals,” John Musall said. Talk about a happening.
It is hardly surprising Stuart was how I first heard the word “gay,” both as an explanation of who he was attracted to, but also in terms of a sensibility. I understood camp, via Stuart, before I grokked sex (between any genders). His love for the classic camp canon, from Tennessee Williams and Sunset Boulevard to “Ya are, Blanche, ya are” and later Ab Fab, was one of the things he shared with me, casually, as the years went by. Stuart’s queerness was as much a part of his art as anything.
From the ’70s through the ’80s, my father wrote music for films by Paul Fierlinger, a brilliant animator and Czech émigré. Paul’s film, It’s So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House, for which my dad wrote the music, received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short in 1980. They didn’t win, but Paul’s then-wife Helena got kicked out of the Oscar ceremony bathroom by Raquel Welch, who would only pee in private.
Like many of the best animators of the era, Paul was a frequent contributor of short films to various Children’s Television Workshop shows (CTW), most notably Sesame Street. He, my dad, and the CTW writer Jim Thurman collaborated on many shorts. Stuart started writing for the films too because, as my dad says, Jim, a consummate Golden Age of Television joke-man, “didn’t write lyrics.”
In 1984, CTW commissioned Paul to create a new opening sequence for the beloved kiddie show Romper Room. They wanted to update the theme song as well. This was a big deal. Months of work for Paul and years of income for the writers (residual checks came quarterly). My dad explains, “The people at Romper Room gave us a list of words we had to use, like a list of nonsense. Stuart was the only person I thought could make them work.”
Stuart’s lyrics for Romper Room are a jigsaw puzzle of that “list of nonsense,” beginning, Ding-dong knock-knock hey nonny noo… I remember him downstairs in our house, free-associating with my dad and Paul, yelling “monkey butts monkey butts” to the tune when he couldn’t make a lyric fit.
Romper Room led to Teeny Little Super Guy, a stop motion animated series that ran on Sesame Street from the mid-’80s through my Millennial friends’ childhoods. Teeny wears a straw hat, tap dances, and talks in Jim Thurman’s best squawky old-man voice (he did all the parts). He lives on a plastic cup, in the Fierlinger family’s kitchen, hopping on the counter to enact lessons about social interaction. Paul drew Teeny’s onto kitchen objects: an eggbeater bike, little kids on dixie cups, a dog leash and collar as a swing. As with all his films, Paul hand drew every cell, and each frame required moving Teeny’s cup a fraction of an inch.
My dad wrote the theme to sound like “classic kids TV.” Essra Mohawk, a local vocalist who’d performed with Frank Zappa and on Schoolhouse Rock, sang the lead vocal: Teeny Little Super Guy, pops right up before your eyes. He’s no bigger than your thumb!
Between Teeny and Romper Room, my dad’s royalties put me through much of private school and college. Stuart’s share must have supported him for years. He lived cheap, spending money on cigarettes and junk food.
Soon after Teeny, my parents hired Stuart to be my writing teacher (I think they paid him in dope). I was thrilled. A real writing teacher! My mom tells me they thought it would kill a couple of hours on a Saturday and we “would talk about something significant.”
Our sessions were not so productive in terms of actual words on paper. Mostly we talked and talked while he chain-smoked Newports.
One time I asked Stuart if anyone had ever written a book recording exactly what a single person did, said, and thought in a single day. I’d been hoping I was a secret genius for thinking of the idea.
“Oh yeah, Andy did that,” he said, pulling a book off his shelf. a: A novel, by Warhol.
Around the same time, New York Magazine published an article about Warhol’s Factory. Poring over a group shot, my dad thought he recognized Stuart. “He worked at the Factory for a minute. I mean, I doubt he ever got paid …”
When I was in middle school, Stuart moved out of the loft above the pizza place, and bought a house in then-dirt cheap University City, in West Philly. He painted its porch and the Victorian gingerbread trim around the dormer windows a vomitous, acid yellow. It faced a dirty park at the height of the ’80s-’90s crack epidemic.
By the time I was in high school, things at Stuart’s house turned weirder. Stuart was mostly dealing weed, rather than writing or making art. He was dating one of the boarders for a while, we thought maybe an ex-con. The next time we came over, he’d installed a basketball net and hung a poster of Spuds MacKenzie on the wall.
“I hope he’s not drinking again,” my dad said.
I could drive then and would visit him by myself: my grown-up friend. I brought money and took dope for my dad back in the car. Stu and I watched Ab Fab together, and whatever else was on. He was living through his screen, using it as a filter between him and the outside world. I hung on to his every wry comment. He wasn’t my teacher anymore, but I think our relationship still felt official to both of us.
In 1992, I went to college in New York and stayed there to live. The years went by. I kept visiting, even as Stuart seemed to lose parts of what made him so special. Now he was always drinking a beer. The weird ex-con dude, Greg, I think his name was, moved back and brought friends. Stuart lost most of his teeth. There was a problem with the dentist.
I was busy with my life. I’d ask my parents if they’d seen him, and increasingly the answer was no.
I got married in Philadelphia in 2007, a big wedding in a restaurant in Olde City, a block from Stuart’s former apartment. So many faces from the past, so many artists and musicians. When I asked my parents if we should invite him to the wedding, my mom said, “Too much time has passed. I don’t think it would feel right.”
My husband, Danny, is a composer. I was so excited to introduce him to Stuart. I imagined we’d drive to his house one day, ring the doorbell, and it would all be the same. Nothing and no one is too weird for Danny. One time, he even met John Cage, who wore a fanny pack of what appeared to be magic mushrooms and munched them like potato chips. He could tell that story and Stu could talk about Warhol and that would be the beginning.
Less than a year passed. My dad called me. The obit was short: “Beloved son of Charles and Marion Horn passed away on August 6, 2008. Age 62 …. a lifelong artist … His works ranged from sculpture collages and drawings to composing and performing music. He published a collection of correspondence art sketches entitled ‘Northwest Mounted Valise’ and composed many songs for the popular children’s show Sesame Street. His eccentric creative and gentle spirit will be missed.“
“Do you know what happened?” I asked my father.
“I don’t,” he said.
I tried to write about Stuart for a decade, stopping and starting. I hung three of his collages on my living room wall, including Find Yourself, found more in my parents’ house, framed them, and hung them as well. Occasionally, I’d do an internet search. Had anyone else written about him? No. Even when Ray Johnson was the subject of a new Whitney exhibit, and as a new generation appreciated the absurdity and humor of Fluxus, Stu Horn continued to be invisible.
In 2017, I decided I needed to talk to Adam Goldman, a friend of Stuart’s who’d still been a regular visitor in his later years. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say without knowing the story of my friend’s last years, however bad it had gotten.
It was hard to talk to Adam about someone who we both loved, who was dead, and not when he should have been. We’d been chatting for a while before I finally asked the question: how did he die?
It was drinking. Liver failure, cirrhosis, something. His body was in his house for a few days, undiscovered, I think Adam said. I wasn’t recording the conversation.
Stuart never wrote a novel, never had a solo museum show. No live-in boyfriends or long-time lovers. No children, no studio of students. There are no scholarly articles about Stuart Horn; no one has written a Ph.D. thesis about him. Even in our internet-covered world, as an artist whose medium was primarily paper and who died in anonymity, Stuart did not leave an extensive footprint.
But Adam told me he had a cache of Stuart’s papers, mostly scribbles and notes on legal pads and napkins from the last years of his life. You should scan them, I said. Then, in the fall of 2019, he emailed them to me over Thanksgiving weekend. I sat on the stairs in my parents’ loft, trying to read hundreds of pages of Stuart’s handwriting on my phone.
The notes are not the great unfinished memoir I’d hoped for, but it’s him, working, or trying to, through all the years. Lists: of “best lines” from movies and TV shows, Hindi grammar exercises (he was learning from one of his boarders). Absurd lyrics repeated and revised: You wore a knittie/ You wore a hoodie/ You looked so pretty/ I got a woodie/ Hair on your chest/ Bullet-proof vest/ You know the rest.
Later, he got darker: a faux personal ad: Dirty old toothless drunken stinky brainwashed over-boiled couch-potatoe seeks bitter youth.
(The spelling of potato would have been purposeful; Stuart loved Dan Quail’s idiocy.) Another list:
What I should have done:
Not started taking drugs (1967)
Should have finished grad school at Cornell (1968)
Left home (1970-72)
Falling in love (again)
Stopped taking drugs (1975-1990)
Pages later, among a string of clichés he was writing down, was the old Jewish joke punchline: Such bad food. Such small portions.
I knew Stuart between 1976 and 2000. Those were the beginning and peak years of the AIDS epidemic, when being a gay man seemed like a death sentence. We talked about AIDS when I was a teenager. He said he was negative, but he didn’t understand why. In truth: I know so little about his life. I don’t know when or how he came out of the closet, who he dated or loved. He had crushes, sometimes obvious, on straight men (my father was one of them), and a rough private life. Twice my dad came to his house to find him bloody on the floor, once badly enough to call an ambulance.
Is this part of why Stuart died too young, at 62, by drinking himself to death? Was it being part of that AIDS Holocaust generation? Was it the pain of his queerness? Who would Stuart be now? What kind of artist? What would old age have looked like for him if he’d lived, stayed healthy? Would his work finally be getting the recognition it deserved? Or would he, like so many artists I have known — especially of his generation, in Philadelphia — still be among the great lost?
Though my online searches for Stu Horn came up empty for years, I finally found a cache of Stuart’s work, in, of all places, the archives of the Museum of Modern Art. Viewable by appointment only.
On a rainy December Tuesday, I put on my best museum archive visitor outfit and went to MOMA. The room was bright and pristine, with a reserved seat for me and a setup of pencils and acid-free boxes laid on a long table. It was hard not to giggle as I opened the boxes, revealing Stu’s xeroxes, envelopes, and the occasional paper scrap (it was also hard not to steal something, but I resisted).
The archivist on duty explained: with mail art, it is difficult to tell what is part of the collection, and what is a joke or piece of trash. Or, as my dad later said to me, as I told him about the struggles of writing this piece, “Stuart’s art was disposable because he felt disposable.” It’s not a metaphor: for being an artist, for being queer, for being a soft human in a hard world.
Back at the MOMA, I was looking through a pile of patched-together newspaper stories, rendered hilariously absurd via cut and paste:
… No less a personage than Tricia Nixon Cox was heard saying after the umpteenth Curb Congregation performance at the inaugural … If I have to hear them one more time, I’m going to vomit … Even those who lived near him in Cherry Hill knew very little about their famed, controversial neighbor.
Cherry Hill, where his mother lived. And Tricia Nixon, a reliable joke for those who appreciated the absurd evil of Watergate.
Themes repeat throughout the cutouts, many in common with pop art in general: aging and ads, the mythos of the ’50s American dream. Mechanics and sex, in combination. Disasters and car crashes (Warhol’s Car Crash silkscreens). Murderous lesbians, Manson girls. Vietnam comes up repeatedly, which makes me wonder how Stu got out of it. His styles repeat as well: words in collage all over a page with some images; some sheets are solely images; some are words, cut to form a single weird story. There are several with sparer composition. These feel more poignant or personal, less pop.
“Whatever they all are, they’re art,” I wrote in my notes. “They belong here.”
I kept thinking about the time capsule nature of the work. He did these in a more innocent time. He would have loved reality TV. He would have been obsessed with the Kardashians.
I was writing my notes on my phone, checking my email periodically. Messages fill my junk mail, their titles the usual word dross: “concealed carry,” “letters from Santa,” “home protection,” “secret shoppers.” A few minutes of my spam folder holds more material and conspiracy fodder than a whole lifetime for someone like Stuart.
Many of Stuart’s collages deal with violence, particularly guns. In the 1970s, in popular culture, a gun usually killed one person. That’s no longer true; now guns massacre, every day, in reality. They aren’t symbols; they’re monsters.
Absurdist headlines made the same transition, from goofy to all-too-true.
Camp and the system of semiotics groaned and broke under the weight of reality. There’s no way “cut out” art could have the same power today as in the past. We have Photoshop, we have too many news sources. It’s impossible to read the papers cover to cover anymore and look for the gems. The volume of junk seemed insupportable then; it is something much deeper and wronger now.
After MOMA, I walked down Fifth Avenue for a while, stopping in at Uniqlo. I like their pop art t-shirts. What would Stuart have thought of all of this? I wondered: the huge shiny store, the Warhol clothing, the president who’d loved Roy Cohn. It was the day of Trump’s impeachment, the most critical day politically (or at least most politically absurd) since Watergate (Tricia Nixon, Tricia Nixon). And me, a grownup, older now than he’d been when he “taught” me so many years ago. I left Uniqlo without buying anything, this time.
Elizabeth Isadora Gold is the author of The Mommy Group: Freaking Out, Finding Friends, and Surviving the Happiest Times of Our Lives (Atria Books, 2016). Her writing about motherhood, books, music, and feminism has appeared in many publications including The New York Times.
Editor: Carolyn Wells