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The Burden of Artists’ Crap
Recently, I witnessed a heartbreaking sight: the selling off piecemeal of Jackson Mac Low’s library at a flea market near my house in New York City. One Sunday afternoon, while rambling through the market, I saw a bookstall and, leafing through the stacks of books, I saw incredible things: every book by Dick Higgins’s legendary Something Else Press, yellowed flyers for early 1960s productions of The Living Theater, dozens of rare chapbooks by prominent avant-garde writers, delectable pieces of ephemera related to John Cage and Merce Cunningham, odd 45 rpm records of electronic music, and so forth. The entire history of New York’s underground, it seemed, was there for sale. Curious, I asked the seller what was the story behind this trove and he told me that it belonged to a famous poet; evidently the poet’s widow wanted to get rid of it all and he personally hauled 75 boxes of stuff down six flights of stairs from a Tribeca loft. Everything was insanely expensive, too dear for me to even consider buying. When I asked him where he arrived at such prices, he said he looked on the internet and priced them accordingly: he had no relationship to or knowledge of what he was selling. I could’ve bought Jackson’s personal copy of Stanzas for Iris Lezak for $150. I demurred.
The selling of Jackson’s library reminded me of when, a few years ago after his death, all of David Markson’s books—replete with the underlining and marginalia that went directly into his late works—were dumped at The Strand. Friends ran down there to scoop up pieces of the holy grail. I was always under the impression that these sorts of collections went to archives where, as in the case of Markson, they would be parsed and scoured for the ages by scholars trying to unravel the complex ways in which Markson regurgitated and recombined preexisting literary texts into his own masterpieces. In the case of Jackson, I was later told that his papers and correspondence were sold to a university archive.
How naïve I was to think that such artifacts would be kept intact. In a recent article about Charles Ives’s heirs trying to get rid of all his stuff that no one wants—including his piano—Jan Swafford wrote, “This is an increasingly common story with artists’ legacies. Even when there’s an interest in preserving things, there’s not enough money and not enough space to save a steadily accumulating mountain of artists’ stuff.” The piece goes on to say how while Faulkner’s house was restored as a tourist destination, his library walked off. Same with Beethoven. Same with Bach.
Estate sales don’t require knowledgeable or sympathetic buyers. What often shows up at the flea market are people’s entire lives, bought sight unseen from mini-storage units whose bills have gone unpaid. It’s incredible to see one’s life laid out on a table in a parking lot: love letters, bills, books, clothing. It’s hard for me to know what led Anne Tardos to want to get rid of Jackson’s stuff. It could’ve been a need to raise cash; perhaps she wanted to make more living space in the loft; or it could be that it was just time to move on with her life and start anew.
All I know is that all my books that I lovingly inscribed to Jackson over the course of our long friendship were hauled off with everything else. I searched for them at the flea market that day but they were nowhere to be found. When I enquired, the dealer told me that what was there at the market was the contents of only two or three boxes: there were dozens more sitting in his living room, waiting to be opened. In the ensuing weeks, I went back to the flea market to see what else might emerge from those unopened boxes, but he never showed up again. I assume its all being sold piecemeal on Ebay. I’m afraid to look.