In the picture

Brian Vincent on the art of Edward Brezinski and Make Me Famous

by Jennie Kermode

Make Me Famous
Make Me Famous Photo: Courtesy of Newfest

Just when you think you’ve seen every conceivable documentary about the 1980s New York art scene, along comes something with a whole different perspective. Part of this year’s Newfest line-up, Brian Vincent’s Make Me Famous is the story of a man who knew all the right people, went to all the right parties and created some stunning paintings, yet never attracted an ounce of the attention directed at some of his contemporaries. Edward Brezinski was an outsider right at the heart of it all, doomed to fail despite his persistent efforts, and his story is a fascinating one. Meeting up with Brian during the festival, I asked him why he chose to tell it.

“The artist Richard Hambleton, you may remember him in the movie, he once told me that he was really concerned actually about my choosing Brezinski,” he says. “He said, ‘You know, you should pick a famous person and then find a story that no one has ever heard about before. How are you going to keep people interested, when people weren't interested in Brzezinski when he was alive?’ But famous people, to me, I thought, they're talked about ad nauseum, so even if you find a new story about a famous person, it's just going to go into this massive library of collectible stories and books and things like that. Whereas this story is guaranteed to be the only documentary made about so far about it. And there's a fantastic advantage to telling stories to an audience about someone they’ve never met before, because you're guaranteed to surprise them with the narrative and they don't know where you're going. And secondly, it flabbergasted people and the galleries and artists that were from the 1980s when I told them I wanted to focus on Brezinski, because they've all become numb to answering all these questions about Keith Haring and Basquiat. And so they would usually laugh and open up and then they dish, you know, and say, ‘This is amazing story...’

“On a personal level, I'm an actor, and I've been a struggling actor for 30 years. And so I can relate to these feelings of not being famous, and, you know, am I going to fail in my career, and what does failure mean? And so I wanted to answer the fundamental question of, if that does happen, if I'm still struggling to the day that I die, did I inspire anyone? What will be left of what I did? And then more broadly, I think that a non famous person, there's been so many in history. It's interesting to look back and to see what was overlooked in art history. And then it begins an investigation, which is the fun part. That's the stuff I love to do.”

People can be quite cruel about the desire for fame, I note, and I like the fact that the film makes it clear that in some professions it’s not a vain or trivial thing – it’s actually important to day to day survival.

“Yes, it’s very similar to acting in that way. And people can say, ‘Well, what's so great about being famous? It comes with all these other problems,’ but it mostly comes with work, and you get to work and you can make a living. So his not being famous, just like with acting, it meant that he would suffer.”

An Edward Brezinski painting
An Edward Brezinski painting

Brian is an admirer of Brezinski’s art himself, he tells me. Does he think that its failure to take off was ultimately down to bad luck?

“Yeah, that's exactly how I feel. The first time that I saw Brezinski art, I was completely blown away by the composition, the paints, the way that he did these big bold strokes, and I could immediately feel that this was an artist whose work should be remembered, you know, as long as as it exists.”

The fact that it hasn’t had much attention to date, however, means that there’s little in the way of established history or even collections of his work. With that in mind, was it hard to know where to start researching his story?

“Yes, that's a good question, because I found as I went along that there are not a lot of Edward Brezinski paintings out there. I think a lot of people threw them away. I think they came to the feeling that ‘This guy's not worth anything and I don't want it to take up my storage anymore.’ In fact, just the other day, someone found a Brezinski in the trash and they contacted us when they saw that it was very similar to some of the paintings that they saw online, and it was, in fact, in the archives.

“I had so much fun investigating this, though, because it his work is not online. I mean, other than the Brooklyn Museum and places that had actually collected Edward, in general, you have to go and find the people that own them. And that in and of itself becomes a journey, a novel almost, that only you get to experience. And I love that. And I think that as the project went along, people started to realise, well, maybe I should save these Brezinskis after all. And so now I don't think there's any chance that these paintings are going to be thrown out.”

They do say that it’s easier to become famous, as a creative professional, if one is dead.

“Well, if he is dead, The thing is, you don't really know what's going to happen to your babies when you make them, just like with this movie. I didn't know if anyone would be impacted by this film. Anyone making a painting – especially when they're not famous – they're risking that that art piece may be overlooked.”

So how did Brian find the people who had those paintings or find people to interview for the film? Was it word of mouth?

“Actually, it wasn't,” he says. “There's this collector who's in the movie. He was a waiter in the 1980s and he collected Brezinskis and Edward used to say, ‘Oh, my main benefactor, the waiter.’ But it turned out that it couldn't have been a better thing for him because this guy Lenny is mad about him in like the best possible way you can imagine. And, you know, as I said, I struggle sometimes as an actor, so I was catering one day, and I had been doing a lot of research about the 1980s art scene because it just electrifies me. And Lenny happened to be working on a shift that I was on, we were talking about the Eighties art scene and he said, ‘You have to come over to my apartment, you have to see Brezinski.’ And so that's how that happened. I went over to see these paintings, I was completely struck by them. And then Lenny, it turned out, had been trusted by Brezinski with many of his slides and his résumés before he disappeared out to Europe. And so I followed the trails with these résumés, as well as reading many books about the Lower East Side. And that was that was how I went from person to person.”

Finding the archive material was a little more complicated.

“Lenny had told me that there was this archival out there,” he explains, “and so I searched on the internet and I found this very low-res archival of Miguel Dinero performing at the Magic Gallery. I reached out to the person that had put it up and I said, ‘Oh, you know, I'm really interested in making a documentary about Edward Brezinski.’ And he immediately took it all down. And he said, ‘Well, I'm going to make a documentary about Edward Brezinski.’ And I didn't hear from him for a whole year, and I soldiered on and still did all these interviews and everything and I was thinking ‘Oh I really need archival so bad.’ And then one day I got a phone call from him and he said that he had had a terrible dream where Brezinski said ‘You are going to give that archival to Brian because I gave you your first place to live in New York,’ and he said he was so freaked out by it that he called and said ‘Whatever you want!’ and he's been a delight ever since.”

If people know who Brezinski is at all, before watching the film, it’s likely because they recall a story about him eating a doughnut exhibited by Robert Gober and having to go to hospital. I tell Brian that I always wondered if that story was true or if the claim that it had been preserved using a poisonous substance was just something Gober made up to get revenge.

An Edward Brezinski painting
An Edward Brezinski painting

”Well, this is explored in the movie, but I do know that Robert Gober, when he first made this art piece, he preserved it himself,” Brian says. “From what I understand, it was later done for him by someone else and made it so that it wouldn't be toxic for anybody if they ate it. But this first go round was made by Robert Gober. The whole community really debated with each other that Edward really, in their minds wasn't capable of making a statement like that because he, you know, he was a drunkard at times and especially at the opening, which is not a great thing to be. He had this incredible artistic temperament, a beautiful work ethic, and he mixed it in with being a fop. And that's what created this whole mystery around this doughnut.”

Brezinski seems to have the classic artist’s story, just without the happy ending that people expect.

“Yeah, that's true. He got to live this fantastic life that we chronicle in the movie. And by saying fantastic life, I mean that he was able to devote his time to painting, even though he had a lot of stories and crazy things that went on around him because of his behaviour. He was able to paint. And that was largely due to the fact that back in the Eighties, it was affordable for artists to have an apartment and they could make very little money, and they could live this bohemian lifestyle. So even though he was very frustrated, I know he was, throughout his career, he did get to make this great art. Obviously, as you can see in the movie, a lot of people appreciated his actual talent.”

The film shows us some of the places that he lived, and there are some pretty terrifying looking buildings, the state of repair that they're in. I ask Brian if he intentionally set out to use that story to talk about wider aspects of the neighbourhood and the art that emerged from it.

“Yes. It electrified me, the whole 1980s art explosion, which I think was maybe the last great art history moment for the United States, where people were so devoted to creativity. And Edward wasn't just a part of it, I think he was one of the people pushing it forward. And he was doing things like, you know, his own gallery in his own apartment, because no one else was showing his work – but how is that any different from social media now, and people doing their their own work and pushing themselves?

“That time period, where people were so devoted, produced some of the greatest artists, and as you can see in the movie, that came out of it because these people were all getting together as a community. They were performing for each other and they were pushing each other. And they were saying, ‘The most creative people, that’s who we think are cool.’ And it wasn't about the money because everyone was broke. And that interested me to know because, you know, anyone can make art, you don't have to be rich to do that. And nowadays, with some certain art art forms, like with Kuhn, and perhaps with Gober, you can't make that art, just anybody. It takes a lot of money to make that art in a lot of ways. And so, these people would wake up every day and say, ‘What can I make?’”

Brian has said that when he made this film, he didn't necessarily expect that other people would see it. How does he feel about it playing at festivals now?

“I'm absolutely delighted. My wife and I produced this together and we really had no idea how it would be received. When we got into Newfest we were absolutely flabbergasted and excited because I really felt that this needed a New York première, and it needed to be a New York première that accepted and in the end loved someone like Edward Brezinski, and Newfest has this whole dedication to voices like Edward’s that haven't been heard before. And so I feel almost that the universe has provided the perfect platform for this movie to première in it.

“When we had our première night, a giant rainbow appeared right down on the top of Sixth Avenue, and everyone was delighted. It's kind of like this movie was made about someone who may or may not be here anymore, and because of that, it's it's sort of paranormal. We've had a lot of paranormal experiences with it. You can see that rainbow as paranormal or not, but it's certainly very uplifting, and it connects to the colours of Newfest. So we're delighted.”

On top of everything else, the film has finally given Brezinski a measure of the fame he longed for – so, as a sort of return gesture, I ask Brian if there’s anything he’d like to tell Eye For Film readers about his own work as an actor.

“Well, what I would like to do for the rest of my acting career is to create pieces for others and for myself so that people can be highlighted that maybe you haven't heard of before,” he says. “I mean, I've been inspired to look behind the scenes of all the famous people because I think that people really deserve to be heard. Every life that's devoted to art is worth exploring. And as for acting, I know a lot of actors that are very, very good, that just need a chance. So I want to use my creative talent to bring forward people that maybe you haven't heard of before, but I know are good.”

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