An extract from Chris Kraus’s new biography, After Kathy Acker, which looks at the life and work of the artist twenty years after her death.
You can read an interview with Chris Kraus, talking about her biography, here.
I have to make all my living as interesting to myself as my writing, [Acker] told Jonathan Miles early in 1983. During the six years she stayed in London, Acker would become more deeply involved with BDSM, as well as with tattooing and bodybuilding. Her image became increasingly elaborated, even baroque. In a black-and-white London portrait taken in 1983 by Chris Garnham, she has her back to the camera. Dressed in a tailored but flowing white linen shirt, her face is in profile, and an artfully razored line on her buzz cut flows across her jeweled ear to the base of her neck from her forehead. In her interview with Melvyn Bragg for The South Bank Show, Acker described being photographed as the same sort of play I do in my writing with identity . . . because an image is rigidity, and I’m always interested in seeing an image being able to fluctuate to another image. Or my identity fluctuate to another identity. And this is one way I can do it. ‘I remember sitting with her on a sofa at a party and looking into her face,’ Leslie Dick wrote, ‘with its harsh makeup and amazing punk hair, peroxide blonde then with brown burn marks on it as if it had been seared with a branding iron, and recognizing this spectacle as a mask that she peered out from behind, or within, oddly like a little girl.
In a 1984 profile on Acker, Rosemary Bailey describes her as a ‘writing, talking, dressing challenge to any established ideas about anything… She will wear wide, wide boiler suits over zipped and frilly nylon blouses, T-shirts exquisitely slashed, sinister silver jewelry of cockroaches and skeletons.’ As Acker told Bailey, Street fashion is where the art is for poor people. I can’t afford to buy a painting so if I get some money I go buy a dress. Two years after Acker’s death, the photographer Kaucyila Brooke would produce Kathy Acker’s Clothes, a series of 154 photographs of the dead woman’s dresses and T-shirts, trousers and jackets, lingerie, blouses, and shoes. In 2006 the writer Dodie Bellamy would curate an exhibition of some of these clothes. ‘How to summon the spirit of a shopaholic?’ asked Derek McCormack reviewing the show:
In 1988, I saw Acker read . . . in Toronto . . . She was wearing Vivienne Westwood, from the Fall & Winter 1988 collection . . . A man’s coat. Grey pinstripes broken up by blocks of black. Sleeves were detachable… The coat’s references include gladiator garb, motorcycle jackets, roller derby uniforms. Mad Max might have worn it to the office. When Acker moved, the pads parted revealing her right and tattooed muscles. On the bottom she wore bondage pants.
Allowing herself to write not less than two pages a day, she continued producing books while immersed in these other things.
After Kathy Acker is available now.
Cover image © Robert Croma