Benjamin Liu, Part I

by Michelle Millar Fisher, September 2011.

Thursday, September 1, 2011. 5:30pm. Artwrit‘s Michelle Jubin sat down with Benjamin Liu, an oral history archive unto himself, in his New York apartment. “I think everything that happened to me is an accident,” Liu says. In Part I, they discuss his arrival in the city and the fortuitous early connections he made with Hugo, Halston and Warhol, personal and working relationships that would shape his course as a creative force in his own right. Audio + transcript below.

Artwrit: It’s early September 2011, we’re in the Lower East Side in New York, in Benjamin Liu’s apartment. I’ve known you for about four years now, Benjamin, right? I met you in 2007, I think. ’06 maybe? ’07? When did I meet you first?
Benjamin Liu: You know, time flies. I don’t remember! I know Austin [Jubin’s boyfriend] eight years, right? Yikes! Oh my god.

You guys are both getting old.
He’s getting old, not me!

I think I met you in 2006, but you met Austin in 2004, because you were doing Downtown for Democracy.
That’s right. Actually, I saw Tal [Schori], the other day, and he said to me, “Now it’s very urgent again.”

To do that for 2012.
Yeah. Not necessarily in that same context, but with the upcoming presidential elections. Look who the other candidates are.

Crazy people.

That’s very terrifying. But anyway. The Oral History Initiative with Artwrit: The reason I was interested in doing it with you is because you have this really interesting trajectory that brought you to New York. You’ve been here for several decades now. You were saying you’ve been in your apartment for twenty years and I feel like you, through your own history, trace a really interesting history of the city and the art scene here and fashion and music and various things. I wanted you to really briefly describe how you ended up here for us, because you came here via Greece and Turkey and San Francisco, right? Am I missing any countries?
Yeah, that’s my really early background, where I became an immigrant, quote unquote. Flying through New York and wind up in San Francisco. My dad was a diplomat for the Taiwanese government, so that took me to several countries. Originally I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, but I left when I was a three-month-old baby. So I started in Turkey, then I went on to Philippines, and then after that I went to Greece. And then my parents thought, “God, look at you, look at your face. You should be speaking Chinese!” So my dad actually petitioned the government for a new job assignment back to Taiwan to give me a chance to actually learn Chinese. So I’m thankful today. In those days I was like, crying. I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t understand why I had to switch from English to Chinese, which is the hardest thing to do. And I not only had to go to day school, I had to do day school homework. After dinner I’d go to night school, then I’d come home and do night school homework.

So then you ended up in San Francisco to escape both sets of homework?
No, after that four years of Taiwan, my dad took another diplomatic assignment. We wind up in Nicosia, Cyprus. So I kind of have this weird background. I have this Balkan-Mediterranean culture in me, and also Chinese, and then of course now American.

From San Francisco, you were there for your teenage years, and then you end up coming to New York. What age were you when you came here?
Well, I wind up in San Francisco when I was, like, thirteen and a half, and that was the height of hippie culture. I remember reading about hippies on the Time cover story on the plane actually, going to San Francisco. At that time I secretly hid a brand new copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles in my suitcase, but I thought it was illegal to bring it in because it just released. So I put it underneath the clothes and gone through the immigration here in New York. But stupid me, you know, it’s just a record! They’re not going to take it away from me.

But it is your prized possession when you’re thirteen and a half so you’re like, “I’m going to hide it in my clothes, and make sure it gets through.”
Yeah, exactly. I didn’t know what’s going to happen to that record. I came here looking like a mod, you know, tight pants and all that kind of stuff. So I was kind of a snob at Sunnyvale High School—that’s where I wind up at. I thought everybody here was a little bit… not so…

Yeah, not so hip. Because we’re following the Brits, you know?

Yeah, and there’s a distinction between mod culture and hippie culture for sure. What age are you when you come to New York? How do you end up making the transition between San Francisco and New York?
Oh, yeah, that was a total accident. I think everything that happened to me is an accident. So what happened at that time—I already was working in San Francisco—that’s early twenties. I had a rich boyfriend, actually, a Greek-American who used to run around all day in a silver Porsche. I don’t really know what he does to be honest with you. I think he just likes to buy things and once in a while hang out with me. So one day he said to me, “You know, I’m thinking of buying a Matisse or a Picasso print,” and I go, “Constantine, you know, with that money, why don’t you buy a new artist’s work?” So he said, “Who should I buy?” And I just happened to be, at that time, reading a copy of L’Uomo Vogue, which is the men’s Italian Vogue, and there was a story inside—this guy called Victor Hugo, a Venezuelan-born artist who also does incredible windows for Halston. And there’s a picture of him in Frye boots and a jockstrap. And that was it! That was it.

They were describing this piece that he made that was collected by a very fashionable set of people—you know, Jane Holzer, Diana Vreeland and all these people—and basically what it was is that he would snap off the heel of a famous lady’s shoe—could be a Chanel heel or something—and then he would go to Woolworth’s, which is probably what we call Walmart now, and buy the cheapest stainless steel spoon, and perch it on the heel. And so I looked at it and I thought, “Oh my God!” It kind of reminded me of surrealistic objects like Meret Oppenheim’s fur saucer and cup. So I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And then he would have Plexiglass boxes made and place it inside. So it kind of was interesting, you know, taking a surrealistic idea, giving it kind of a fashionable setting, I guess. And so I suggested that to Constantine and he said, “Well, get hold of that guy,” and I didn’t know what to do! So I kind of looked up 411 and called the Halston boutique. And I think until this day, I think there is a definite loose translation there. I just go, “I’m looking for Victor Hugo,” and the lady goes, “Well, he’s not here, but you can call this other number.” So I call the other number and someone said, “Oh, he’s not here,” and I left a message and the purpose of my call and my phone number. Sure enough, that afternoon he called me back. First he was really flattered I called him, and secondly, you know, somebody was interested in buying his work. And guess where I called.

I actually wind up calling Halston’s house, without knowing it. And I didn’t put the two and two together that Victor actually was Halston’s boyfriend too.

Oh, okay, I was going to ask the connection.
Yeah, the whole connection came around. I had a hard time understanding Victor because he talks a mile a minute with a very, very heavy South American accent. A lot of times I keep saying, “Excuse me?” I wind up convincing him that I’d love to have him visit San Francisco, which he heard so much about. And at that time I had a really great apartment on Nob Hill, on the corner of Taylor and Sacramento. I inherited a duplex apartment from this decorator who actually took a job in New York as the head of display at Macy’s. So I inherited that apartment along with his roommate, beautifully decorated in a minimalistic way. So Victor actually took up the invitation and showed up in six months.

And how long did he stay?
A week.

You showed him around San Francisco?
With me. But he was totally intimidating.

Did Constantine end up buying the art piece?
No. [both laugh] No, he didn’t. I don’t know what happened. I think maybe we broke up after, quite a while after that.

Okay, and then Hugo ended up inviting you back to New York?
He did. He said, “Why don’t you come to New York?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, great!” So I did my return visit within six months, or even less. He said, “I’ll put you up with my assistant Lorenzo Velasquez.” So I arrived and he lived in Times Square.

Roughly which year is this in?
Probably ’78, ’79-ish, around that time. Probably ’79. I have to say ’79. So I got there and I remember checking in and Lorenzo said, “Oh, welcome, I’m so sorry but, you know, the floor down, two prostitutes just got murdered!” And I thought to myself, “Oh my god. I love it! This is New York, right?” [laughs] And that was an incredible week ’cause, you know, Victor took me to everything. I actually wind up going to the premiere of Bad, Warhol’s film, and that took place in a theater, actually, in Times Square. I forgot what theater, probably it’s gone now.

I’m reading at the moment… Have you read… I’m sure I’m late to do this, but Patti Smith, Just Kids? She talks a lot about Robert Mapplethorpe going along to Times Square and how it was kind of a part of the artistic underbelly. It was like the underbelly of everybody, but it was kind of part of that kind of scene at that point in time.
It is, if you can imagine that. I think, you know, there’s still somebody who writes books. Well, he probably doesn’t anymore… I forgot his name right now, he lives in the East Village. But he’d write a lot of books on Times Square at that time, but he concentrates on the hustling scene.

Yeah, which was what Mapplethorpe was part of in a way as well.
Exactly, exactly. You know, everything is kind of like that. So it kind of makes sense that Warhol and Morrissey—well actually it’s not Morrissey. Actually, Jed Johnson, Warhol’s then-boyfriend, directed the film. And it’s the only film that Jed directed. After that, he became a decorator.

So you end up with Hugo, he’s showing you around in this first week being in New York, and then how does that connect to what you end up doing in New York over the next five, ten years or so?
What happened was that I liked what I saw, right? And I went back to San Francisco and I thought, “Hey, New York, why not?” So in six months’ time I just decide to move there, just like that, you know? In fact, to the point, at that time I was dating someone else and I didn’t even tell him I was going to move! [laughs] But anyway, I told him and he came along, actually, which was kind of great, you know. But I didn’t at first, I didn’t even tell him. And I told Victor, he said, “Sure!” You know, at that time he kind of separated from Halston and he moved to 19th and 5th in this incredible loft actually. It’s still there, 109 5th Avenue. Aveda is downstairs; I just walked by there the other day. He said, “I have an extra bedroom; you can just stay there.” So I wind up working for him for two years and that’s how that whole thing started.

So you wind up working for Halston? Or with Hugo?
For Victor.

Okay, what did you do with him?
Well, Victor is very, kind of… There’s no schedule to him at all. So a lot of things is very what I call random—meaning finding inspiration, for lack of a better description. Maybe one day we’ll do things for Halston and look for… Maybe we’ll do some rummaging through vintage clothing stores. Like I remember one day we found an apron, but somehow Victor had the eye and the foresight to see that apron being… It could be a cape, it could be a wrap dress, it could be a lot of different things. When he looked at it, it had that possibility, just the way that apron was made. I can’t remember exactly how that apron was made, but somehow it translated into many ideas. That actually became a really successful—creatively and also commercially—collection for Halston.

So this is how you ended up beginning in New York, working for Hugo and also having this relationship with Halston. And then after a couple of years you ended up working with Andy. How did that transition happen?
Well, Victor had a lot of creative moments. Like, for instance, I remember that we spent a long time… Because his English was always really bad, and he loved this Oscar Wilde play, so he always had this tape that he always listened to, whether he’s sober or whether he’s stoned. But he’s always listening to that tape. So at that time, you know, that was the height of both Studio 54 and the beginning of Mudd Club, and he had this brilliant idea of staging a play there. But the way he staged it to me is very Dada, because it was bits and pieces of things. So he actually got hold of Cookie Mueller, which is one of the main actresses for John Waters, to do a bit part. Then he would get someone else, like the musician Walter Steding, who plays violin, and he got me to do the introduction. He would get somebody who looks like a hustler but who’s actually not a hustler to do a monologue of somebody who is really talking about his male physique, you know, leaning against a pole. So the whole thing, the whole play, is like, clips of everything, and it was really the first time uptown and downtown came together in this little space of a club.

Where was this put on? So this was at the Mudd Club?
At Mudd Club. So there would be all those kinds of people, plus all the downtown people. So that’s part of Victor, you know. And there were many nights I would stay up with him. I remember nights he would go, [claps] “I’m gonna make cum sheets now!”

Which is…? Exactly what I’m thinking or…?

Oh! Okay.
Yeah, he’s a provocateur. I remember I was being interviewed by… Um, I forgot his name. Do you mind if I pull out the book?

Yeah, go ahead, Benjamin!
He’s a famous author… Wayne Koestenbaum. So Wayne said to me before I sat down, “I know that you know Victor Hugo,” and it turned out that he was obsessed about Victor Hugo! So I said, “Then I’m not going to start the interview with you, Wayne,” ’cause he wanted the interview about Andy. So I said, “I wanna start the talk.” [laughs] I was joking with him, I said, “I don’t wanna start talking about Andy until you promise me you’ll write a book on Victor. I have the material, you know.” I said, “I know that dude.”

So his project was Warhol only?
No, his is a book on Andy. Yeah. So I kind of, like, stalled it for ten minutes, like joking and teasing with him. Victor is what we call a muse, an artist’s muse to Andy, to the jewelry designer Elsa Peretti. The unsung hero, basically, to Halston, you know. He helped Andy with Torso. The whole series of Torso, whether it’s women’s torso or men’s. Or nickname… [laughs] Can I be really vulgar?

Yeah! Go ahead.
“Tits and asses and dicks!”