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Manon Cleary has a pet rat, Boo Boo. Cleary lets her play on her bed and rock-climb on her body. But today, Cleary had to lock Boo Boo up.
“She chewed through my tube,” says the 61-year-old artist, watching the red-eyed albino rampage around in her cage. “That’s OK,” she chides. “You deserve it.”
Cleary takes the four steps from Boo Boo’s box to her bed and sits down on it, legs crossed. She reaches over to the
cannula stretching from the oxygen machine by the dresser and straps it around her head. Ever since her lungs gave out in 1999 from prolonged exposure to toxic fixatives and a since-discarded smoking habit, she’s been compiling a mental list of health hazards: moldy rooms, Comet cleanser, perfumed women in elevators. Now Boo Boo is on the list, too, for severing the plastic breathing tube on one of Cleary’s portable oxygen tanks.
“Hurray, kill Mommy!” deadpans Cleary.
But it’s going to take more than attempted murder for Cleary to hold a grudge: The rat is one of her last, dearest companions. Most of her old friends in the Beverly Court Apartments—now the Beverly Court Cooperative—have moved out or died. Their former apartments now harbor a pleasant mix of political activists, lawyers, doctors, a math teacher, a tennis pro, and “fresh young things,” says Cleary.
Those well-tailored folk have replaced the society of unshorn serigraphers, plumb-bob fanatics, and caped filmmakers that made Beverly Court an artists’ mecca in the ’70s. Cleary’s apartment used to draw in these characters, as well as outside critics and collectors, on a regular basis for booze and cultured conversation. But that’s also mellowed. “The neighbors facetiously called [the apartment] Versailles,” she says. Now the building has occasional potluck dinners.
Cleary aims a remote control at the TV elevated on a cabinet in the corner, programming the VCR to record a WETA special on Venice. Her husband, 45-year-old F. Steven Kijek, enters the room with a black ceramic vase full of purple flowers, which he sets on a stool near the window.
“I wish people would come around and see her. But they don’t,” says Kijek, an origami artist and professional masseur. “And I’m disappointed….[I]t scares them, reminds them of their own mortality.”
The celebrated painter of white rats, nude self-portraits, and lovers’ penises spends most of her time in the bedroom, recuperating. The walls are a soothing, womblike shade of purple. The oxygen machine purrs. The shades are drawn. She reads Joseph Epstein’s Snobbery: The American Version, watches Law & Order, and sends questions to the “Dear Rat Lady” section of the Rat Fan Club newsletter, which run next to maudlin poems by other rodent owners:
‘He’s sick!’ you say,
‘I’m afraid he’ll die!’
But still they wonder
Why you cry.
Cleary and Kijek venture out a few times a week to attend a ballet or art opening. It’s not a bad life, but it’s a far cry from the one Cleary used to lead in Beverly Court.
“It used to be artists and old people,” she says. “Now, the artists are the old people.”
When Cleary moved into the Beverly Court Apartments, in 1972, nearby Columbia Heights was still in ruins from the previous decade’s riots. Cleary says she had no reservations: Her flat in Capitol Park had fewer rooms and cost more. And a grouchy old fellow on her floor there called the police whenever she hammered canvas onto wood.
It didn’t seem as if she’d have that problem at 1736 Columbia Road. The four-story brick-and-limestone fortress, once the site of upper-crust dances, music recitals, and card parties, had emptied out after the riots. What remained was a depressing warren of crumbling plaster and leaky plumbing. The heating system and the elevator had both kicked the bucket. Pigeons flapped around the halls.
The building, appearances aside, wasn’t abandoned. With its palatial spreads and rock-bottom rents, it was only natural that an encampment of artists had taken up residence inside. The post-riot Court populace included:
•Allan Bridge. Bridge was the artistic pioneer of the building. He settled in Apartment 101, right next to the buzzerless front entranceway. There he practiced carpentry and produced abstract-expressionist paintings, using a blender to mix pigments and a turkey baster to shoot them onto the canvas. Bridge later turned conceptualist, building an automatic painting machine from two-by-fours and setting up a telephone confessional service in New York City, where he adopted the name “Mr. Apology.” “He could’ve been the Manson type, but he was too highly intelligent,” remembers painter and gallerist Michael Clark, who hung around the Court in those days. “He could’ve had a real caper going on.” In a way, he did: Bridge was responsible for the subsequent colonization of the building by befriending…
•The Millses. The short, bespectacled couple known as “Ma” and “Pa” to the tenants managed the building for the owner and lived on the first floor. The Millses took a shine to Bridge. “They thought he was such a nice boy,” recalls Cleary. They asked the lanky, longhaired artist to invite all his nice artist friends to fill up the empty apartments. Mr. Mills later died while fixing the plumbing in the apartment of Opal Owens, a hat maker.
•Yuri Schwebler. The Yugoslavian-born sculptor and conceptualist rented a room in Bridge’s apartment. Schwebler had once worked as a surveyor and had come to favor plumb bobs as a sculptural centerpiece. Obsessed with various New Age concepts, Schwebler went around town leaving golden lines on the street to indicate invisible currents of energy. He once turned the Washington Monument, via use of a snowplow, into a sundial. His view of sex was likewise conceptual, says Cleary, who speaks from firsthand experience: “He curled up in a fetal ball and drank warm milk.” When Schwebler lived at the Court, he was fomenting plans to bounce townhouse-sized rubber balls through the streets of the city. It never happened.
•Jonathan Meader. Silk-screen artist Meader was sort of a hippie, though cleaner and with better business sense. “Scrubbed down with lye soap,” remembers Clark. “He nailed every chick in the building at least once.” Meader hired an accomplice who sold his prints of unicorns and shooting stars from a cart downtown. When the Hirshhorn staged its grand opening, he forged invitations so his friends at Beverly Court could attend. “There were all these people in three-piece suits arriving in limos,” says Meader. “Then there were Volkswagon buses with people in feathers and velvet.”
•Angelo Hodick. The Brazilian filmmaker was struggling to produce a movie, Star Man, which appeared to be based on his own life. Hodick spent a lot of time on the Court’s spacious roof. Several people recall him laying out a tarp and making strategic arrangements of stones to alert space beings that the Star Man had landed. He sometimes wore a cape.
Cleary didn’t have much trouble making friends at the Court.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
“She was really attractive, like a magnet. She had great pectoral muscles, a really excellent body,” says Clark. “Highly intelligent,” too, he adds.
She also had a bit of balance in her life, which impressed the other residents.
“She had a job and a car. Nobody had a car!” says 59-year-old Allen Appel, a photographer who lived on the first floor. But Cleary did: a purple Dodge Dart, which she used to motor to her gig teaching studio courses at the D.C. Teachers College, later absorbed into the University of the District of Columbia (UDC).
Cleary’s art exhibited the same level of groundedness. She had settled upon figurative painting after scrutinizing Caravaggio’s works in Rome and studying under a magical-realist at Washington University, who painted in a velvet smock. Her methods were meticulous. She reveled in painting hair—the amateur dauber’s nemesis—and used layers of glaze and pigments to impart pearlescent glow to her figures.
“She was probably the best painter in the building,” says Appel. “I would go up and she would have a 6-by-8 canvas and be laying down the grounds. As far as I could see, it was the finest painting I’d ever seen in my life, and she hadn’t even started on it.
“We were beating around trying to develop styles,” he adds. “Her style was already set.”
Cleary watched as the Court filled up with other creative types: film producers, painters, dressmakers, framers. “It was like a commune, but with apartments,” she says. People began leaving their doors open. Curators, collectors, and critics dropped into the unlocked apartments, browsing through the art as if shopping at a flea market.
In the midst of all the activity, however, it became clear there was another culture competing in the building ecosystem. Abstract expressionist Gay Glading was one of the first to notice its presence: If she got too loud working in her studio, somebody next door banged on the wall.
“There were older people,” says Appel. Like most of the artists, “[They] seemed to have no fixed income, either.”
It appeared that the reason the older people hadn’t moved out after the riots was the high number of casualties among their ranks. Cleary remembers a man with only half a face. Another fellow, she says, appeared to be stricken with elephantiasis. Appel recalls exercising bomb-defusing caution when unlocking his door, because if the key made any sound in the barrel, a crippled man in the room across the hall would scream for help. And coming to the rescue, he says, was no picnic.
“He never had any clothes on. It was so creepy,” says Appel. “He would fall out of bed and be lying on the floor. I’d have to pick him up—he was a great big guy, too—and muscle him into the bed. Then he’d tell me these horrible stories about this Spanish lady [he married], who never paid a bit of attention to him: ‘She just brought her lovers from Spain; they live in the back; they hate me.’
“He eventually died, and everybody heaved a huge sigh of relief.”
The emperor of the old guard was Jesse Thomas, a compulsive archivist. His collector’s ways made him a hit among the Court artists.
“You would see Jesse come in and he would, like, be carrying a 10-foot sign he’d gotten,” says Appel. Because his arms could never quite hold the plenitude he’d acquire outside, Thomas left a trail of debris through the building and up to his door.
“In the elevator you’d find those rare/medium/well-done toothpicks and cottage-cheese cartons,” says Cleary. “He had a two-bedroom apartment filled floor to ceiling with everything ever printed in the Washington area.”
At some point, she says, Thomas began sending the Millses religious tracts in lieu of rent money. U.S. Marshals came when he was away and transported all of his property out of the apartment—a good deal of it through the windows, according to some reports. The junk accumulated in hulking piles on the sidewalk. Meader, who was outside at the time, watched as a man from the neighborhood climbed the piles with a machete in his hand. “I can still hear glass slides crunching under his feet,” says Meader, 60.
That’s when Thomas returned. “I was standing there, looking at the stuff,” Meader says. “[Thomas] came walking down the street and he looked over…[and] he just turned white.”
Thomas, who was 53, twirled around and started running up Columbia Road. He made it as far as 16th Street, where he collapsed. He died 30 minutes later.
“Word swept the neighborhood that this was dead man’s stuff…so all the neighborhood people went nuts, started going through [it],” says Appel. “All of the artists went nuts, too, because he had just incredible stuff, these incredible Japanese things: pictures, stamps, boxes and boxes of glass slides of geishas….I just photographed all these people looting these giant piles of stuff.”
Cleary soon enough became the queen bee of the building, throwing lavish dinner parties after art openings. “Manon was like the big brains over there,” says Clark. “[Her apartment] was the hub of the whole scene.”
The parties grew so large that Cleary enlisted her first pet rat, Ramon, to help dispose of the leftover pâté and half-eaten wheels of Brie. But Ramon couldn’t compete with the revelers. The creature turned into a balloon, bending the walls of his cage outward. Eventually he broke free, hid himself somewhere in the apartment, and expired of what Cleary diagnoses as “high cholesterol and no movement.”
While Cleary acted as the building’s hostess, other residents had their duties, too. Bridge built canvas-stretchers. Appel photographed artwork for gallery dealers. Somebody else supplied drugs. The spirit of partnership in the Court was a breath of fresh air for the city: The Washington Color School, which had put D.C. on the modern-art map in the ’60s, had, to an extent, poisoned the local art vibe.
“During the time the Color School was having its heyday, a lot of those guys couldn’t stand each other,” says printmaker Lou Stovall, who worked with several Court artists in his Dupont Circle Workshop. “See, everyone would have a geometric shape they would pursue. And if you were doing a geometric shape that was too close to anyone else’s, you were said to be knocking that person off….There was a lot of angst in the Washington Color School.”
With styles as varied as costumes at a Funkadelic concert, the denizens of the Court didn’t have such a problem. “It wasn’t like we precious few were excluding the outsiders because we have the secret to the ladder,” says Paul Richard, a Washington Post critic who at the time lived in the building. “It wasn’t that, because everybody had different ideas on where you look for that ladder.”
The artists also had a secret weapon to keep the good vibes jangling.
“Do you know what MDA is?” asks Meader. “It kicks the shit out of Ecstasy….After you drop it, 45 minutes later you feel perfect.”
The group organized trip-trips to a farm in Virginia. There was a treehouse and a small pond that was more mud than water. “We would go out there en masse, suck toes in a circle, see auras,” says Cleary. Somebody found a foam installation piece by Ed McGowin and tossed it into the pond, where the artists used it as a boat.
“It was a way of us coming together as a community,” explains Meader. “One afternoon, I caught a full-grown wild rabbit.” Just walked right over and picked it up, he says. “Absolutely phenomenal drug.”
When she moved into the building, Cleary was in the midst of her brief feminist incarnation, doing brightly colored paintings of breasts in juicers, breasts in frying pans, and breasts on ironing boards. But after hanging around the farm, she began a new series: graphite portraits of her friends, sometimes in the clutches of hug drugs.
Using a process of subtraction, she coated pages with graphite powder, cut out a rough figure with erasers, and touched up the image with blending stumps and Kleenex. “The change was just phenomenal,” says Meader. “She was doing these drawings effused with light…the most soft pencil work you’d ever seen.”
Cleary exhibited these portraits at the 1973 Beverly Court Show at Dupont Circle’s defunct Pyramid Gallery. Nine other artists participated, including Meader with his unicorns and Kristen Moeller with her drawings of giraffes and butterflies. Richard did the review for the Post: “Because these artists have learned to see their own art through one another’s eyes,” he wrote, “this show has an even accessibility that the viewer, too, can share.”
But perhaps the timeliest work by a Court artist wasn’t on display. Schwebler, then in the military and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for psychiatric observation, was able to stage a conceptual coup under the nose of his Army superiors but, alas, not in time for the show.
“[Officers] tried to get him to cut his hair,” recalls Appel. “He said, ‘I’ll cut my hair, but I’m not going to let your barbers do it.’” With a 24-hour leave of absence, Schwebler trekked to Columbia Road for some creative collaboration with Appel and Bridge. “The next day,” continues Appel, “he went back to the Army and said, ‘I got my hair cut.’ They said, ‘Take your hat off.’ He took all his clothes off, and he was shaved as clean as a billiard ball. And they said, ‘You’re out of this man’s Army!’
“He had his balls shaved, which totally freaked them out.”
Schwebler later exhibited his shavings as Hair Piece.
In the mid-’70s, Cleary’s friends started to disappear from the building. The exodus coincided with a change in her art. The light graphite portraits disappeared, and Cleary, perhaps out of necessity, switched to self-portraits.
Meader, having done well on the gallery circuit, was one of the first to move out. “Suddenly I had money,” he explains. He bought a house in Mount Pleasant in 1975 with the proceeds of his art, and he made his former Courtmates take off their shoes and extinguish their cigarettes when they came to visit.
Bridge and Schwebler left around then, too, both eventually winding up in New York. Hodick, the Star Man, shaved his head and became a Hare Krishna. Appel acquired a job with the Washington Post, doing cover-page artwork for its weekly Potomac Magazine. For a while, he attempted to turn his friends on to newspaper illustration, as well.
“But it was always a problem, because everyone I would try to get involved in it—these people were all artists, so there was absolutely no control involved in their lives,” Appel says. “They never understood the illustration had to do something with the story….You’d get a story about a weatherman in Virginia, and I’d give it to a friend and they’d turn in rat pictures. Then I’d have to go down [to the Post], and everyone would yell at me.”
Appel left for the Maryland suburbs, where he now writes novels about time travel.
But Cleary stuck around for Beverly Court’s next major transformation. In 1978, after the owner of the property died and well-dressed real-estate speculators started showing up in the hallways, the tenants decided to turn the building into a cooperative. Like the bunch of starry-eyed artists they were, they threw fundraising discos in empty apartments and held flea markets complete with sketch artists and mime shows.
Somehow, it all worked: The tenants got the deed on Friday the 13th, August 1979, making the Court the first co-op in D.C. purchased entirely with private funds. For their effort, the original residents got to choose their new neighbors.
“We were like 30-year-old kids,” says Cleary, “choosing other 30-year-old kids.” They targeted low-income folks, netting a second crop of artists. But the original feeling was gone, says Cleary. “It was when artists started locking their doors—and started having ‘open studios.’”
Cleary bought her current apartment on the fourth floor and outfitted it with a darkroom and painting and drawing studios. “The nice thing about the Beverly Court [Cooperative] was that I was sort of a misanthrope,” she says. “I didn’t have to go out.” In the evening, after she got off teaching at UDC, she’d make a beeline for her studio. There she’d swig liters of Dr Pepper and paint to the noise of late-night Channel 20 movies. She embarked on a series of nude self-portraits based on photos she took herself in the shadowy interior of her apartment.
In 1980, one of Cleary’s graphite drawings made it into the Corcoran’s “Images of the ’70s” figurative-art show. The next year, she was invited back to the museum for an annual soiree. By then, she had become well enough known that society wags targeted her for comment on fellow attendee and art heavy Frank Stella. “He’s very new wave,” she commented, according to a subsequent Post article. “Very punk. All that glitter.”
“When I came [to D.C.], she was a star. She became kind of a prima donna because she was so famous,” says painter Judy Jashinsky. “She was stunning, beautiful: long, brownish-black hair; real thin; wore…little sundresses and sandals. She was just very cool, and there was always a crowd around her.”
Though the original Court artists had left the building, Cleary kept the party spirit alive in her personal life. Her first husband, Tommy (“just Tommy”), whom she married in 1981, hailed from an experimental art school in Denmark. Tommy, who was in his early 20s, was at the school, thinks Cleary, on a court order for one of his various crimes. She later found out that he had broken into a car to steal several packages of coffee, and then as an afterthought had stolen the vehicle. That marriage dissolved in a year.
Then there was Jim Sottile, the noise musician and conceptual artist. “One of his biggest faults was staging fights in the street,” Cleary says. Sottile liked to harass Hispanics from the car when the two drove together. “He considered it performance art. I considered it insane.” Cleary says she often found her tires slashed and windows smashed. Sottile left town in the ’90s, resigned to the fact that noise would never catch on in the nation’s capital.
Sequestered in her dual Court studios, Cleary continued to birth different series, many of them inspired by developing traumas in her life. She drew naked men in clear plastic bags as a tribute to her friend David, who died of AIDS (“They’re like full-body condoms”). She completed a long-planned “Villa of Mysteries” series of oil paintings, which featured animal bones and disgruntled-looking Manon Clearys on blood-red backgrounds (a satire, explains the artist, on her early menopause). Cleary also painted a political-protest “Unicorn” series of rats with horns. In actuality, the horns are hypodermic tubes that researchers use to funnel drugs into rodent brains.
“There was something always dark and scary about Manon’s art,” says critic Richard. “But countering that, there’s a sort of sweetness of depiction, maybe in a beautifully drawn curl of hair or the way the light turns on a shoulder. There’s a sweet, lyrical, singing quality, coincident with the rats and darkness and deep shadow.”
Cleary got off the lyrical track once. In 1996, she traveled to Kazakhstan to lecture on art in capitalistic societies and was sexually assaulted, she says, by a native artist. She disappeared from the public eye for two years, then resurfaced with her “Rape Series”: blackish-blue oil paintings of her own anguished face, rent with cigarette burns and slashes of red paint.
“Gay Glading shot the photos [I worked from] and was yelling out stuff about rape while I posed,” she says. “It was sort of a collaboration.”
“I’m Manon Cleary, and Jim was a dick and these were portraits of Jim.”
Cleary and Kijek lie in bed, watching Manon Cleary talk about her “Dick Series” of paintings on a taped episode of HBO’s Real Sex. The volume’s way up, to overpower the buzzing of the air conditioner that cools the room so Cleary can breathe. Boo Boo, out of the bad-behavior box for the moment, is snuffling around on the covers, hiding ice cubes she has plucked from a tumbler of Kijek’s home-flavored vanilla vodka.
On TV, Cleary holds aloft a painting of a penis with a string tied around it: “Jim inspired me to do this particular series, one, because I had one around the house all the time for four years and I could look really close and see what they really look like. And it was something I enjoyed watching come up, as it were….This is perhaps the last of this series, or at least the last of this particular dick. And it’s a picture of it being strangled by a rope. More than being a revenge on him, they’re filling the void that was left by him.”
After her rape, says Cleary, she couldn’t get close to anyone. That is, until Kijek came along.
The two met at a 1999 party in Baltimore, following an opening of Cleary’s men-in-bags works. Kijek entered wearing black pants and a $600 handmade Italian-linen shirt: “A very fucking serious shirt,” he says. But Cleary didn’t get much of a chance to ogle the imported cloth. Hearing that the artist was in the room, he disrobed, says Cleary, and made his approach. “He said, ‘Wouldn’t you like me to pose for you?’”
In 2001, a doctor gave Cleary two years to live. “I was really a space queen at that time,” Cleary says. “I would come home from work and fall asleep in my food.” She went on disability when her weight dropped down to 80 pounds. “I was going through pulmonary failure,” she says. “It was the ultimate diet. If you want to lose weight, paint with oil paints in a closed room.”
That same year, the couple went to an Astroturf-lined town-hall chapel in Towson, Md., and got married. “Since I was going to die,” says Cleary, “I dressed in black and carried calla lilies.”
Since then, Kijek and Cleary have become collaborators of sorts, building a cow’s-tongue pantyhose hanger for a Signal 66 erotic-art auction and decorating a Pandamania-type “Raven Fish” in Baltimore with five pounds of black turkey feathers. They’re also developing plans for a spray booth in the closet of her drawing studio, where she could work on her newest series—graphite drawings of Kijek in a rubber suit—by sticking her hands through gloves enmeshed in a sheet of plastic.
It’s the kind of creative partnership Cleary might once have joined with Bridge, who used to stop by Cleary’s apartment to tell her when she was overdoing a painting. But Bridge died in 1995: A Jet Ski ran over him while he was scuba-diving in New York. Schwebler also is no longer around, having killed himself by sitting in his garage with a running car in 1990. Meader now lives in San Rafael, Calif., where he writes children’s books and articles about Egyptian artifacts. “I was doing silk-screens and there were toxic chemicals and I didn’t realize how dangerous they were,” he says. “Over 20 years, it just ground me down.”
In the absence of visitors, Kijek has been trying to re-create a little of the old Court life for Cleary’s benefit. “I didn’t realize what this building was when I moved in. I just thought, Oh, I have excellent taste, and there are some cool things in here,” he says. “But I have a different appreciation now.”
Two winters ago, Kijek organized a surprise party for the artist’s 60th birthday. He prepared prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, arranged flowers, and contracted a troupe of Japanese classical guitarists. Then he ordered the birthday cake.
“I’m particular about three things: cake, bath soap, and bed linens,” Kijek says. So when he called up CakeLove on U Street to put in his order, he was quite specific: “I said, ‘I want a fabulous birthday cake. I want an almond cake, I want a vanilla butter-cream frosting…and I want candied orange zest on top. I don’t want the pith of the orange zest—I want zest. Then I want some kind of marmalade in between the layers. I want it to be lush, moist—I want an incredible cake.”
After the party, which was held at the house of one of Cleary’s dealers from the ’70s, the two artists went home to what’s become a quite sought-after piece of real estate. That’s not to say other artists don’t live in the building. But for every painter there’s an accountant; for every potter, three lawyers.
“I would think,” says Cleary, “that the government lawyer has less use for 9-foot ceilings than me.”
“Well,” considers Kijek, “they can hang their art.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.