“Make Me Famous” – or Rich [MOVIE]

Edward Brezinski, 1979. Photo courtesy of Marcus Leatherdale.

Brian Vincent’s documentary, deceptively about artist Edward Brezinski, isn’t really about Brezinski at all. “Make Me Famous” asks more questions than it answers, opening a veritable Pandora’s box of issues because this isn’t about fame or even money. It’s about the existence of artists who paint to live, who hope to make enough to continue and who thrive on recognition. The title of the documentary, while gripping, leads one to believe that fame is the be all and end all when it definitely isn’t. But in the eyes of the artist trying to make a living, it is definitely a marker of success; and it’s all about success as measured by gallery shows and sales.

Using Brezinski as the so-called archetype of the 80s art movement, Vincent reveals what it is to be an artist, to strive for recognition, to look for the answer to “why not.” “Why not” is, perhaps, the underlying theme because Brezinski wasn’t just good; his paintings show style, depth, imagination and innovation. His life was messy. An alcoholic, he often did and said things for which he should have been sorry if he hadn’t been in a constant haze of self-delusion. His peers recalled his mistakes vividly, one of which made it into his obituary. He was unafraid to show his disdain for what he considered derivative art. 

Edward Eats. Courtesy of James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook.

The most infamous example was at the Robert Gober exhibit at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York where he displayed “real objects”: sinks that he hand crafted and more particularly a bag of donuts. Offended by the superficiality and lack of originality of this show (Marcel Duchamp had done this in 1917) , and perhaps jealous that something so mundane had captured the art world, Brezinski walked up to the display of a bag of donuts, reached in and proceeded to eat one. He said he was hungry. Horrified, Gober told him to go to the emergency room because the donut had been glazed with a toxic enamel. This could have been Brezinski’s five minutes of fame but instead of capitalizing on this moment, he retreated. His more famous contemporaries like Basquiat would have owned it. But then that’s what made Basquiat Basquiat and not Brezinski.

His paintings, ever present in the background, should have attracted more attention than they did. And here lies the deeper meaning of the film. He was good enough but somehow never quite made the leap. He was an oddball, but maybe not quite odd enough. He was on the scene from the beginning and his art was almost always a step ahead of the era. He was doing stencils long before Banksy; he was a modern expressionist painter before it became a trend; he took Warhol’s serigraphs of celebrities (e.g., Marilyn Monroe) and made his own punk versions of Bianca Jagger. It seems as though he was never quite in step with the moment.

Edward Brezinski and CLICK models for NY “Talk Magazine,” 1984. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Postal.

He and his fellow artists set up shop in the East Village of New York City before it was a thing. In the late 70s and 80s, it was a depository for garbage, rats and squats. In fact, Brezinski lived in a 6-story walk up across the street from a Men’s homeless shelter where the men would line up around the block to get a cot. The East Village was the starving artist, and I do mean starving, equivalent of Soho and its trendy art galleries. Make no mistake, however, Soho was always the goal. Brezinski, charismatic and handsome, set up his own gallery shows in his apartment and was infamous in Soho for attending all the openings and passing out his homemade brochures advertising his own shows. Of course there was always the food and he was, after all, a starving artist. 

But why not him? He was entrepreneurial; he was good; he was an excellent self-promoter. But of course there was that tendency to self sabotage. It wasn’t just his alcoholic rages but there were the petty, but effective, revenges he executed on important gallery owners who ignored him. Couldn’t have helped.

The larger question, though, is who wins and who loses. So many of his contemporaries are still around and, if not famous, they make a comfortable living with their art. Several of the more famous artists of this era, all of whom came out of the East Village, are dead. Basquiat from drugs, Haring and Wojnarowicz from AIDS. 

Edward Brezinski at Club 57, 1981. Photo courtesy of Kathy Dumas.

Why anyone? Vincent, the director, is a Julliard-trained actor who should have made it. He has the pedigree but not the resume. A TV episode here and there, an occasional B or C-List movie, it brings up an excellent parallel. Why do some actors make it and others don’t. There are those who hit immediately (Brad Pitt) and others for whom it takes years of toil before they’re noticed (Bill Nighy). George Clooney didn’t make it until “ER” but had been toiling in failed pilots and moderately successful shows for years. And what about the recently deceased Treat Williams. He was successful but by all rights he should have been a superstar. Sometimes it’s the material, sometimes it’s opportunity, sometimes it’s luck. Contacts help but it’s getting over that grueling audition process. For artists, that audition process is getting the attention of a gallery owner looking for something only he or she can identify, and either you’ve got it or you don’t. As decided by the Soho gallery scene, Brezinski didn’t have what they were looking for at the time. He wasn’t different enough; his charisma and good looks seemed to be offset by wrongly timed ugly behavior; he apparently didn’t have what one of his contemporaries called the “wow” factor.

Where this film excels is in the archival footage of the many artists interviewed in the present day. It’s exciting to witness the art parties in the derelict East Village with the known, Haring, Basquiat and Wojnarowicz, and unknown (at the time), Richard Hambleton, Walter Robinson, Frank Holliday, James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook. Eric Bogosian, present at the start, gives a particularly informed and articulate analysis of the scene that he knew so well. The influential Soho gallerists talk about what they were looking for and why Brezinski wasn’t it; but then most of the aforementioned “unknowns” weren’t it. Annina Nosei of her eponymous gallery was the first to represent Jean-Michel Basquiat and had several unfortunate encounters with Brezinski, although she did buy one of his paintings. Giving lie to his search for fortune and fame, whenever he sold a painting he spent the money on oils to continue painting; a vivid display of what was truly important to him.

The film is rife with the irony of success and the hunt for it. But nothing is more ironic than the “Club 57” show at MoMA in 2017 highlighting the art in the East Village from 1978-1983. Long dead (in 2007), Brezinski finally gets his moment as one of the artist’s displayed.

Opening July 10 at the Laemmle Monica.


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