In 1907, Alice Babette Toklas met Gertrude Stein in Paris. They fell in love and Alice became Gertrude’s indispensible companion, secretary, housekeeper, editor, gardener, and cook (for all we know, a darn good one). Three years later, Gertrude wrote her first literary portrait, Ada, in which she described in her unmistakable style how she felt about Alice: “Trembling was all living, living was all loving, some one was then the other one.” Years later, in 1932, Gertrude made the symbiotic character of their relationship even more apparent when she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The book established them as one of the most revered same-sex couples in popular culture.
When I met Daniel Isengart, fourteen years ago, I had largely given up on pursuing a career as an artist. In the eight years since my controversial dismissal from an MFA program at Hunter College, I had written a thesis in comparative literature and become a freelance gallery lecturer and museum educator, working at the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Daniel and I met at Bar d’O, a now defunct downtown cabaret lounge. He was performing that night and sang a song called “The Best is Yet To Come.” And so it came. He moved in with me and became my beloved muse and indispensible partner in aesthetic crime. We took life by the horns and resolved to pursue our artistic dreams together. What we got in return was a delirious journey of permanent creation, where matters of great concern would always be treated lightly and those of small concern seriously, all of which came quite naturally to me. Blame it on my upbringing.
I grew up living in embassies. My father was a Belgian diplomat, and keeping up appearances was one of my family’s primary duties. The oftentimes surreal ambiguity between representation and reality that dominated my childhood was my first introduction to the theatre of the absurd. Art became my refuge and, not surprisingly, I soon found myself drawn to the works of artists who played with these issues – notably René Magritte and Marcel Broodthaers. By the time I enrolled in the graduate program at Hunter College, I had already digested several years of art school and was interested in institutional critique. I created an alter ego that was a parody of the romantic, earnest artist and lampooned the faculty’s conservatism. I routinely donned a hunter’s attire and a fake beard, the shaggy kind so fashionable nowadays among hapless hipsters, and often brought along my dachshund to ostensibly “help me hunt for a masterpiece.” I produced paintings depicting Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal and exhibited them in the school’s men’s room. Then, in 1991, in a rather dramatic turn of events, one of myself-portraits, an obscene amalgam of Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” and Magritte’s “The Treason of Images,” caused a scandal and I was dismissed from the program on the grounds of plagiarism. The party was over, that is, until Daniel came along and, as it says in the song he sang when we met, “everything started to hum.” My passion for creating fun and mischief through art was finally rekindled.
By then I had more than ten years of experience working as a museum educator under my belt. I knew very well what the museum world looked like from the outside and inside. I felt detached from yet committed to it. I fixed a cool, dry gaze upon its machinations and took it as my main subject. I founded the Homeless Museum of Art, a spoof of the established, earnest and profit-driven contemporary art museum. I created a new alter ego — the half-mad Museum Director. I wrote provocatively facetious, open letters to real museum directors that exposed the commercialization of the cultural institutions they led. I conducted several guerilla performances, including a group visit to The Museum of Modern Art where everyone paid the newly inflated admission fee of $20 in pennies.
Eventually, Daniel and I turned HOMU into a live-in installation in our apartment and began holding monthly, clandestine openings that unfolded like absurd happenings. And so, a hundred years after Alice and Gertrude held their fabled Saturday salons in Paris, an expat same-sex couple opened its home to strangers for the sake of art – this time in New York. We had a hell of a good time until our landlord read about it in The New York Times and threatened to evict us if we continued to run a museum out of our rental apartment. So I devised a new tactic: I brought my Museum Director act to the street, engaging in intimate dialogues with anyone who dared to take a seat at my small booth made to resemble Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth in Peanuts.
Then one day, while leading a VIP tour at the Guggenheim, I came face to face with a new reality. The visitors were a group of sports journalists, and the event was sponsored by a major sportswear brand. Each journalist was given a free pair of running shoes and, before I knew what was happening, they started doing aerobics in the galleries, expecting me to talk to them about the art while they were doing sets of crunches, stretches and squats. Without missing a beat, I joined them in their exercises and, to my great astonishment, no one seemed to think of this as particularly odd. I came out of the experience in an utter state of shock. Here, art was no longer the vehicle of the joke. The tables had been turned and the joke was now effectively on the art. I realized then and there that if museums were condoning the trivialization of art to such a degree, my own pastiche of the museum world had become moot. It was time to move on.
What remained was the largely undocumented trajectory of my art project and my partnership with Daniel, without whom the Homeless Museum of Art might have never seen the light of day. I thought of Gertrude and Alice and, quite suddenly, had an epiphany: I would write a memoir to document everything we had done together over the years. I would write it as simply as Gertrude Stein had written The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—as a stylized tribute to a life where, indeed, trembling was all living, living was all loving, and some one did become the other one. The result was The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart.
Just as Stein had done before me, I assumed my partner’s voice in writing it and stuck to style and exteriorities as a way to let inner truths emerge slyly, from within. The book became a portrait of the ever-changing city Daniel and I have lived in for the past 25 years and, maybe more importantly, a testament to our commitment to one another.
Not long ago, I came across Kay Turner’s brilliant book about Gertrude and Alice, Baby Precious Always Shines. In it, Turner describes their symbiotic partnership in a way that might as well have been written about ours: “Gertrude and Alice simply married, set up house, had sex, and stayed together, mostly for better, rarely for worse.” Writing The Autobiography made me realize that our private life is the one true masterpiece Daniel and I have created.
Sometimes, things are complicated. With me, they usually are. Sometimes things are simple, and when they are not, Daniel will distill them until they are. Together, we are, as I write in The Autobiography, “simply complicated.” It’s a force to reckon with.
The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart is published by Outpost19.