I remember first seeing Edwin Denby when he entered the building next to mine on 21st Street. I remember my seeing him because he radiated light. This brief hallucination later spoke to my wife, Liz, offering to help her with the groceries and our three kids all of which she was trying to get up the stairs of 143, intact. ‘I spoke to the man next door who radiates light; his name is Edwin. He said you had De Kooning’s old studio. I told him you admired De Kooning and he said you could come to his loft next door and see his De Kooning paintings.’
When Edwin answered the door I could hardly see him . The loft was all white; a white bed with maybe twelve white pillows on it and Edwin, shining white, smiling, upping the claritas factor. (‘Enlightenment’ was a big aim in the ’60s and I wondered what that might be like. Like this I decided.) We floated over to the two 4X4 De Koonings. He had the one of a hollow eyed De Kooning looking out at the viewer. And Edwin talked about ‘Bill... when Bill painted this.... in your loft ... look at the shoulder ... like an orchid’. Then he told me about walking with Bill one evening, on 21st street, after the rain and how they stopped and Bill just couldn’t get over the way the lights and neon reflected in the puddles, and they spent an hour just looking. And the way Edwin laughed made me see it; these two sources of white looking down on pools of flickering colour.
I painted Edwin’s loft a few times. Once with a ‘Denby orphan’ — I think Edwin was a magnet for difficult cases — who had a very complicated life. He held beliefs about the correct way to paint a loft white. And he did know stuff, but because he was doing a mix of mushrooms and speed at the time his explanations became mind-scrambling narratives, mostly about frogs. Edwin returned in the middle of this. He was to go to Frank O’Hara’s funeral the next day and could we leave it for a few days. Edwin was shaken, but this other guy, with all the self- obsession of the nicely stoned, kept on about problems with the painting — and frogs. Edwin’s smile was setting into a rictus of pain as I led Bob, yes, that was his name, down the stairs and into the street where he continued to try to grapple with the mysteries of death and chance and make sense of them to himself and to me.
Liz looked after Edwin’s cat during the Summer months. It got little jars of baby food. I, a possible substitute, was also inducted by Edwin into the ritual of sequence and variety. He said to me a few times ‘If your children need any of these, you must, of course, give it to them’. How he thought a young couple from Dublin with three small kids, living in an industrial loft, with illegal heat and no AIR sanction could possibly want for anything was beyond us. And yet it must have impressed itself on him. He gave Liz sliced white bread. I had just discovered rye bread so it wasn’t until one night, too late for the shops and needing to eat something, that Liz said to use the packet of white bread Edwin had given her. She found it and then said ‘look at this’. Between each slice was money; $5, $1 and $10 bills. Edwin had placed these notes, given it to Liz and never said anything. Luckily the word ‘bread’ meant ‘money’ in the ’60s, so I was able to thank him for the bread without infringing what was so ‘cool’ about his gesture. What stunned both Liz and myself was the previous gifts of bread that we didn’t open.
I played a bum in Rudy Burkhardt’s ‘Money’ starring Edwin. When I showed up Edwin said I looked convincing and did I have to use much make-up. ‘Depressingly little’ I told him. He gave a great laugh. Actually I hadn’t used any, so I guess I got to understand why I might have been given bread. I worked hard on my part which lasts about a micro second in the movie but, if it ever goes digital and you have a stop frame on your control, you can see that I was giving it everything.
I went with Edwin to the opening of De Kooning’s exhibition at, I think, Knodler’s Gallery in around ‘65. (I could scrub up quite well actually and I was very flattered Edwin had asked me and tried to work out ‘what goes with white?’ and wore that. Flares I’m sure.) De Kooning is one of the few painters where you can come off the work to look at real flesh, a face close by, and not get that jolt of change. It’s seamless: life, art. But I had trouble ‘getting’ the exploding groupies or young women in this show. Where was the wiring, the old domain? It still had that visual adhesiveness which told you that this is the real deal; you could move from the art to a living thing and it was in synch but what else was going on. ‘Laughter’ explained Edwin. Laughter? ‘Yes, like in Beckett’. It was a few years before I got the laughter in Beckett — it’s not for kids — and then I think I started to get it in De Kooning.
I last saw Edwin in ’79 when I visited New York from Australia. We had a great evening, talking, and he gave me a present of a ceramic or glass conductor or whatever those things are that electric wires are wound around on the top of electricity poles. A bit like a pear or a ribbed breast or a Brancusi, well a lot of things, but that’s what made it so magical. Well he made it magical actually. Just when you though the readymade had had its day, along comes this, from this man whose power to infer ‘this has value’ bestows value. I had missed the bread, but I didn’t miss this.