Last Weekend to See Agosto Machado’s ‘Forbidden City’
In the new exhibit, “Agosto Machado: The Forbidden City” at Gordon Robichaux Gallery, there is a sign in the midst of a shrine-like, overwhelming array of yellowing obituaries, labeled “The Book of the Dead. Bearing Witness.”
Machado was friends with all of the people in the obituaries. And, what’s more, he has indeed been a “witness” to many decades of counter-culture history in downtown New York.
The artist, performer, archivist, and activist has described himself as “an orphan with a sixth-grade education, and a degree from the university of the streets” who feels “very blessed he fell into the most magnificent, wonderful, Alice in Wonderland world of downtown NYC.” He has fondly referred to downtown icons, Ellen Stewart (founder of La MaMa ETC) and John Vaccaro (founder of The Play-House of the Ridiculous) as his “spiritual mother and father.”
He grew up in Hell’s Kitchen until the neighborhood was demolished to make way for Lincoln Center in the late 1950s. He then decamped to Greenwich Village “to lead the life of a pre-Stonewall street queen,” he has said. “We came to the Village to express ourselves. I didn’t really feel I was part of the majority culture.”
A Chinese-Spanish-Filipino-American, Machado was a friend to countless celebrated and underground visual and performing artists, He has been a vital part of cultural and creative life in New York City since the early 1960s.
In a Zelig-like manner, Machado always seemed to find himself at the center of things. The list of places he has been, the people who have photographed him, and the groundbreaking creatives he has performed with, form a who’s-who history of downtown performance and art. His circle included underground filmmaker Jack Smith; the avant garde psychedelic hippie theater group The Cockettes; Obie award-winning American drag performer, playwright, and actor Ethyl Eichelberger; and Warhol Superstars Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Mario Montez, and Jackie Curtis; to name just a few.
Machado was also part of the cohort of queer revolutionaries including Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, with whom he participated in the Stonewall Uprising.
His installations consist of objects and art that were given to him by friends, or that he collected through his many adventures. There are also displays of photographs that form an emotional collage of Machado’s life while also paying tribute to the lives of the artists and activists who were in his world.
Machado has always felt a profound responsibility to preserve and memorialize his creative community. He was motivated by the deep appreciation of the marginal and ephemeral reality of queer and underground creative production, and by his profound experience of the AIDS crisis, which, in its early days, devastated the downtown arts community, taking the life of many of his close friends.
Through this devastating period, Machado nursed scores of friends and attended funerals and memorials, saving each announcement, program, and card, many of which feature photographs of his friends’ beloved faces. Over the decades, he preserved invites, posters, and flyers from exhibitions and performances he had participated in or attended. He collected artwork — “treasures and souvenirs from friendships” — acquired as gifts or found and bought on the streets of New York.
Machado’s collection is extraordinary to see. It is a kind of lost world, documenting his own life and the wider creative history of downtown New York. These artifacts have been, until the current exhibit, on permanent display as an immersive installation in his East Village apartment, which he refers to as, “The Forbidden City,” evoking the palace in Peking.
Highlights of the new exhibit include a box of Jack Smith’s performance props, a group of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s glittering foil reliquary objects, examples of Arch Connolly’s jeweled paintings and collage, and two Martin Wong paintings of brick walls. It extends to works by self-taught artists of the period including Tomata du Plenty and those associated with the East Village such as Caroline Goe, Grady Alexis, Miguel “Mickie” Perez, and Sir Shadow.
We had a wonderful conversation with Machado about the art of collecting, creating, and preserving the history of so many others. We talked a great deal about loss. But Machado, despite being one of the very few people left of his circle today, was a positive, engaging, and vibrant person, and we immediately saw how his passion for collecting and archiving is a way of life for him.
The Gordon Robichaux gallery is currently working with Machado to find a permanent home for his works. We can only hope that the collection finds a really good home, and that Machado continues to curate, create, archive, and preserve. The exhibit runs through this weekend, closing on February 27.