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Faking one’s death is very in vogue these days. James Bond did it recently in Skyfall and the protagonist of blockbuster thriller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn escaped a bad marriage the very same way. But perhaps, the greatest conspiracy theory floating pop culture still after 30 years is the death of Andy Kaufman. Rumors have always swirled the truth around the venerable comedian and performance artist, whose life story (“On Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman”) is currently on display in neatly curated vitrines by Jonathan Berger at Maccarone Gallery. “If Andy walked in the door right now,” tells Bob Zmuda, the long-time best friend and collaborator of Kaufman’s, “I’d be surprised but not shocked.” But Berger, an artist and professor at Columbia University, says that ephemera in the show, including old CVs, invitations to wrestle, the Tony Clifton jacket, and marionettes, reveals just how Kaufman “worked beyond the boundaries of the present.” He continues, “there are lot of people who aren’t really acknowledged for the profundity of their contributions to culture — and Andy is one of them.”
The gist of the exhibition is a real-life history book. Maccarone enlisted primary sources, including Zmuda, Lynne Margulies, Johnny Legend, Laurie Simmons, and Tony Clifton to impart their own personal experiences of Kaufman with gallery goers who, until February 16, will have the chance to plop down at a high-school cafeteria roundtable smack in the middle of the exhibition to ask whoever whatever they’d like — sometimes not even about Kaufman. Names like Ed Wood, Harold Langdon, and Hugh Hefner are tossed around with vigor in a veritable movie geek babble. In fact, devotees of Kaufman, like one named Kaufman who trekked up from Aventura, Florida, are flocking the exhibition to trade memories and battle opinions of the legendary star and health nut who died of lung cancer at the age of 35. Naturally, the conversation somehow always turns to the demise of Kaufman and the myriad conspiracies surrounding his death. As Legend puts it, “I always say, when Andy allegedly left us or passed away.” And Zmuda points out, “Lynne Margulies told me that Andy told her, ‘I was gonna be a man about it [faking his death]. I’d be away from 20-30 years,’ and next year is the 30th anniversary of his death.”
Despite all the chatter, the exhibition is a serene portrait of a man who was a searing force in creative expression. “The project is more about questions than it is about statements, part of my agenda is to create a situation that is somewhat unstable — there aren’t really labels for anything and you’re able to talk to these sources,” says Berger, “So all the parts that you need to understand — who he was and what he was trying to do — are here. But it’s not authored and it’s not finite.” To wit, Tony Clifton’s performance after the Saturday evening opening at Westway speaks volumes to the uncertainty and instability surrounding Kaufman. Clifton, a character also shrouded in mythology, is real, and a louche lounge singer and performed quite the set the other night that included a few scandalous epithets resulting in an on-stage fistfight…with a woman. Was the brawl planned? Nope, but it surely took on a whiff of Kaufman, who famously awarded $1,000 to any woman able to beat him at wrestling. While Clifton’s derogatory constitution is too fierce for most, Kaufman’s brand of chaos is tamer and palpable but always retains its unexpected and unpredictable quality. Berger offers, “I don’t know if the show is going to work, it’s an experiment, but, I came up with this score that allows for things to happen that feels true to the things that matter.”
“On Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman” is on view at Maccarone through February 16.
Andy Kaufman was an influential American entertainer, actor, and performance artist. He died in 1984 of lung cancer.