Adrianne Geffel: A Fiction

A poignant and hilarious oral history of a (fictitious) musical phenomenon.

Celebrated music critic and cultural historian David Hajdu unravels the mystery of a one-of-a-kind artist, a pianist with a rare neurological condition that enables her to make music that is nothing less than pure, unmediated emotional expression. Her name is Adrianne Geffel, praised as the “Geyser of Grand Street” and the “Queen of Bleak Chic.” Yet despite her renown, she curiously vanished from public life, and her whereabouts remain a mystery to this day.

Hajdu pieces together her story through the memories of those who knew her, inspired her, and exploited her―her mother, father, best friend, producer, critics, teachers―in this slyly entertaining work of fiction. Adrianne Geffel is at once a piercing satire, a vividly twisted evocation of New York in the 1970s and 80s, and a strangely moving portrait of a group of characters both utterly familiar and like none we’ve ever encountered.

(This text courtesy of W.W. Norton.)


Sandor Kalman (former chief curator, K. Lewitt Gallery):

I knew Adrianne Geffel very well, of course. I discovered her. This is well known. I discovered many of the artists and also the musicians. Richard Prince, I discovered. Chuck Close, Steve Reich, Richard Serra—they were workers in a moving company when I discovered them. They had a truck. They carried boxes and furniture—whatever you needed moved, they moved it. That’s what they did. No one knew they were artistic. Chuck Close, an artist? Steve Reich, a musician? They were movers, and then I discovered them. They moved all the furnishings from our original location on 135 Crosby Street to our much better space at 82 Spring Street. They did very good work for me for a very nice price, and I recommended them to everyone. Before that, no one ever heard their names.

I discovered them all: Robert Smithson, Cindy Sherman, Chris Burden—Jeff Koons, of course—we are very good friends. I gave them their start, I gave them money, so they would have a few dollars while the accountant worked on the books. That could take a very long time, and there was not always much money left for the artist. I took care of them out of my own pocket. Many times, I gave them ideas for their art. Artists don’t like to talk about that. That’s fine—I don’t do what I do for recognition. I’m satisfied with the commissions. But it’s not always what it looks like.

Chris Burden, I never got along with. I wanted to shoot him, but I didn’t have a gun. And what did he do? He went ahead and found someone with a gun, and asked him to shoot him. The man missed. He just got a little of his arm. But he used my concept.

Adrianne Geffel, I introduced to the world. I gave Adrianne Geffel her premiere at my gallery, with the artist Ann Athema. I gave Ann Athema her first solo show at the same time. So many things, I started. So many more I could have started, but somebody did them first.

And that’s all I can tell you about Adrianne Geffel. She was very grateful to me. She admired me very much. For that alone, you could say she was not unusual. But I was very happy to have the opportunity to introduce her. That led to so many things over the years, and now this book. It’s amazing to think—you and I would not be having this conversation right now, if I weren’t here with you.

[Kalman is asked to recount how he came to present Adrianne Geffel in a gallery setting.]

I remember, I first got the idea to put music in a gallery after seeing Steve Reich perform in a gallery. That’s how the concept came to me. Ann Athema was happy with the idea to have Adrianne Geffel play at her show. We had no piano, of course—it was an art gallery. It wasn’t the Copacabana. So we used an electric keyboard that Reich brought for us to use. He charged us only for the moving.


Available September 22, 2020.

Ann Athema:

Armutt, because he changed his name, thought I should change my name, too. Armutt thought everyone should find a new name and become a new person. He would say, “In the future, everybody is going to change their identity every fifteen minutes.” I said, “I see, and now you’re Andy Warhol. In fifteen minutes, could you please become someone more original?”

Armutt came up with the name Ann Athema for me. Like “anathema”—get it? Hardee- har-har-har. Armutt was the great avant-garde punster. There was a fellow named Bob Sheff around then—he was a Texan and played blues piano in a bar band. Armutt renamed him Gene Tyranny—T-Y-R-A-N-N-Y—and he became a thing. Armutt was trying to find somebody to call Kurt Vile—V-I-L-E—but no one went along with it, because they didn’t get the reference. Years later, I saw that a singer was going by the name Kurt Vile, but it turned out that Kurt Vile was the guy’s real name. Armutt was furious.

I liked becoming Ann Athema, actually—it was ludicrous. I thought of going with Irma Neutica, but Armutt was working with a drag artist he was grooming to call Irma La Douche, so Irma was taken. Working in public under the guise of Ann Athema allowed me to function without creative pressure, protected by the armor of irony.

Geffel was a different creature entirely. I was a nest of insecurities and anxieties hiding behind a joke name, making joke art. Geffel was pure truth and openness. Her emotions were her music, and her music was absolute emotion. I never experienced anything like that.

We arranged for Geffel to play at the opening of my show at K. Lewitt, and she ended up playing at the gallery every night for a month or more, I believe. I thought she would be a good fit, because the whole idea of art and music then was to do things that didn’t fit together. Trisha Brown was walking up the side of the building in an alley down the street. Larry Rivers was painting while he was playing the saxophone and making a plaster cast of his dick at the same time. No, if you want to know—I wasn’t there to see that, luckily. But I do know people who have seen the plaster cast, and a lot more people who have seen the dick.

I told the gallery I wanted no canvases on the walls at all. I would describe the art, and that would be the art. The galley people were ecstatic, in the diffident and alienating way gallery people experienced ecstasy, and I saved a lot of money on canvases. Before the doors opened, Geffel paced around the gallery, looking over the empty walls, humming to herself. She said to me, “I hope you know, Koshka, I can’t promise to match the spirit of your artwork.”

I said, “I know, Geffel—I’ve heard you play. That’s why you’re here.”

She made that odd little smile of hers, and she said, “Hey, Koshka—thanks.”

The opening of the show was fairly well attended. There were twenty or twenty-five people there—all the people who went to every opening, to ogle one another and be seen by one another. The director of the gallery introduced me, and I walked slowly all the way around the room and pointed to empty spaces on the walls. I said, “This is one of the earliest pieces in this series. It is the secret of life, pretending to be the secret of death.” I gazed at the wall for a moment and walked a few feet, and I said, “This is the earliest childhood memories of everyone here tonight superimposed over the worst fears of everyone coming here tomorrow.”

When I had covered all the wall space, I thanked people for coming and told them to enjoy the art while they listened to the music of an important new composer. I introduced Geffel, and she started playing a little electric keyboard the gallery rented from Steve Reich. Within a few minutes, everyone in the galley had gathered around her, watching her and listening intently.

Geffel was terribly nervous, and that only made the music more . . . like Geffel’s music.