When there’s a scene, there will be people trying to make that scene. Some succeed, others don’t, and it’s not always clear why. The art world is no different: you could lose your shirt trying to predict, before the fact, which artists will get the fame and fortune and which will simply be left by the wayside (of course, if you guess right, you could also get rich). You’ve probably heard Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, for instance, but Edward Brezinski? Not so much. As someone who pays a moderate amount of attention to the art world, I was totally unaware of Brezinski’s existence until I watched Brian Vincent’s documentary Make Me Famous.
One thing is immediately clear about Brezinski—he was desperate to be famous. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and Brezinski seemed to have a good shot at art-world success. He had the talent, he had the easygoing good looks and charm (one of his contemporaries said he had “It” in the sense popularized by actress Theda Bara in the 1920s), and he had an “anything goes” mentality fostering the sort of performative outrageousness that can catapult an unknown artist to overnight fame and fortune.
Brezinski created a gallery in the squalid building where he lived (across the street from a homeless shelter), giving it a name so lame it demands attention: “The Magic Gallery.” In a much-publicized incident, discussed several times in Make Me Famous, he ate a donut that was part of a Robert Gober art exhibit, earning himself a trip to the emergency room in the process (because, surprise surprise, the donut was preserved with toxic chemicals). He went to other artists’ openings and handed out flyers publicizing group shows in which his own work appeared, something which simply isn’t done. Most famously, Brezinski threw a glass of wine on gallery owner Annina Nosei, who played a key role in launching Basquiat’s career—and found himself banished from many major galleries as a result.
At some point you may start to wonder if Brezinski wasn’t simply a mentally-ill person with a bit of artistic talent, someone craved success but wasn’t willing or able to discipline his impulses to do what was necessary to earn it. On the other hand, outrageousness was part of the downtown art scene of the day, and the line between being spontaneous and creative, and just being annoying, can be a fine one indeed. Still, Brezinski seemed to have a talent for coming down on the wrong side often enough that he simply wore people out.
One day Brezinski simply disappeared from the scene, and most of his contemporaries had no idea what happened to him (not that they seem to have spent a lot of time contemplating that question, to be honest). Make Me Famous seeks an answer to what happened to him, and fills in some backstory on Brezinski in the process. Born in Detroit, he hung out at the Detroit Art Museum and demonstrated early his artistic temperament: one relative notes that Brezinski “thought he was monarchy” while everyone else were just “peons,” while others remember him having a problem with alcohol long before he arrived in New York.
The value of watching Make Me Famous does not depend on your answer to the question of whether Brezinski’s art or life is worth your attention: it more than earns its claim on 90 minutes of your time for the collective portrait it creates of the Lower East Side art scene Brezinski was so desperate to join. Make Me Famous includes an unusually forthcoming (and often quite entertaining) series of interviews with a wide variety of contemporary artists, performers, and art dealers, including David McDermott, Peter McGough, Marcus Leatherdale, Marguerite Van Cook, Annina Nosei, Eric Bogosian, Mark Kostabi, and Kenny Sharf, and a great selection of archival materials presenting both the art of that scene and the context in which it was made. All in all, it’s a very well put-together film, thanks to film editing by Vincent, cinematography by Eugene McVeigh and John Sawyer, art direction by Julie Jo Fehrle and Eric Steding, and music by Jeremiah Bornfield.
You may well conclude, after watching Make Me Famous, that the other artists of the day, and the scene itself, were both far more interesting than Brezinski ever was. That’s certainly my verdict, and I quite enjoyed my virtual time trip back to the gritty, graffiti-covered, freewheeling years of the 1980s downtown New York art scene. | Sarah Boslaugh
Make Me Famous had its world premiere at NewFest 2021 on Oct. 17, and is available for home viewing through Oct. 26. Further information about NewFest tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the NewFest2021 web site.