February 28, 2019

How I Art and Why pt. 1: The Cockettes

Adam Lerner


As he transitions from his role at the helm of the museum, Adam Lerner outlines the art and ideas that have mattered most to him, discussing key artists in the field of contemporary art and the value of looking beyond that field, in a new lecture series How I Art and Why.

Here is a preview of the kinds of things Adam will address in his talk.

An image of a woman wearing colorful jewelry and clothing against a yellow background.
Photograph by Roger Arvid Anderson

This 1972 photograph of Fayette Hauser as part of the performance group the Cockettes speaks directly to what I care about in art.

I met Fayette in person for the first time in 2010 in the course of researching an exhibition on the American counterculture, which I co-curated with Elissa Auther. We met at an outdoor café in an old Hollywood neighborhood. Before then, I had only seen her in photographs from when she was forty years younger. But she was immediately recognizable with the same round cheeks and thick hair that looked like she had just been outside on a breezy day.

We talked a little about her recent hip problems and the convenience of our hotel to the café. Then she began to tell me about the one thing in her life that may have come close to greatness. Holding a large stack of 8x10 photographs featuring her and her free-spirited gang of oddball characters, she talked about her involvement with the Cockettes.

Founded in San Francisco in the late 1960s by George Edgerly Harris III, aka Hibiscus, the Cockettes was a kind of theater-troupe that performed both on and off the stage: at the Palace Theater, on the streets of the city, and in their communal homes. Producing outlandish Broadway-like musical shows on stage, most of the time they practiced “life theater,” appearing in persona even when they were not on stage and blanketing their home with props and effects. With no income to speak of, they scavenged the city for clothing and materials to make outrageous outfits that were feathered, sequined, sparkled, painted, fruited, at times, even architectural. The Cockettes, and their spin-off group, the Angels of Light, were not strictly speaking drag queens since men in beards wore dresses and feathered headpieces and biological women like Fayette were mixed in with the bunch. Rather, they eschewed definitions and partook in a kind of chaotic gender identification. And even in their time, they were legendary, with a reputation that extended far beyond the Bay Area hippies, who adored them, to the east coast avant-garde. Their influence extended from glam rock to haute couture. The dominant style of Burning Man is a direct legacy of the Cockettes.

In 2013, I saw a performance by the Cockettes for the first time, when Fayette organized an event at Mills College Art Museum, in Oakland, to coincide with the presentation of our exhibition there. Though a revival, it had many elements of madness that I imagine were crucial to the original group. There were handmade costumes that often failed and props that included large paper swans and red hearts with the word “vagina” written on them in glittery letters. There were arguments, long gaps between acts, and one act was even introduced twice, the second introducer correcting the mistakes of the first. It was the type of show that would probably have been much better to watch on LSD. But there was something awesome about a bunch of old folks being just as ridiculous as they were when they were young.

Black and white image of five people in theatrical makeup at an outdoor space.
Photography by Fayette Hauser

Fayette wasn’t a celebrity member of the group but that’s largely why I am so enthralled by her. There wasn’t much fame in general to be had from being involved with the Cockettes but Fayette was there – fully there. She immersed herself in something rare and special – and crazy.

Working on the exhibition about the countercultural movement in the 1960s and 70s, I met several people like Fayette. To varying degrees, most of them have been recognized by others before we came along but none of them have made it into the art history textbooks. Many of them did not consider themselves artists or label what they did as art. But they all participated in breaking the mold of how things were done before them.

Offering a lesson on life, Fayette and her cohort don’t make a case for art, at least not the kind of art that goes in a frame and has a title and date. Rather, they promote living artistically. They advocate for something that lies at the core of art: the will to escape the natural human tendency to do things the way they have always been done.

Join us for How I Art and Why, March 13 and April 10. Come to one talk, or buy a 2-pack and attend both. Both events run from 7-8:30PM at the Holiday Event Center (2644 West 32nd Avenue). Get your tickets here!