A Short Good Bye Letter To Writer and Raconteur Glenn O'Brien

text by Adam Lehrer

Clash’s Mick Jones shared his personal guide to a healthy and happy life: “Don’t be a cunt to anybody.” And always out front and center was Glenn, looking handsome and sophisticated in his slacks and shirts or his Basquiat-customized leather jacket, somehow seeming a notch cooler than the uber-cool legends of art, music and fashion he had on the show. There is no greater example of Glenn’s savvy for turning a cultural moment into a historical movement than the years he spent producing TV Party. It set the stage for where his career would head.

O’Brien refused to abide by artistic anti-establishment norms. While many of his friends would die or go broke trying to live up to some ill-defined notion of ‘never selling out,’ O’Brien managed to find ways to make his talents profitable. In addition to his literary gifts, O’Brien was a respected forward-thinking ad man responsible for genius campaigns for Calvin Klein, Swatch, Nike and others and served as creative director of Barneys for just over a decade. He always maintained his integrity, however, instilling his campaigns with the same subversive wit he applied to his work as an editor, curator and writer. He constantly questioned the nature of advertising and what being a ‘creative director’ actually meant, writing a piece on the subject for Art Forum. He made advertising a creative pursuit of equal importance in his oeuvre. 

On a personal note, I want to mention O’brien’s substantial generosity and genteel nature. Having worked as a photographer, writer and editor in the New York art world for a few years now, I inevitably met the man a couple of times. I remember the first time I crossed paths with him, at an opening for a show at Bill Powers’s Half Gallery, I was extremely intimidated by him. But he had a way of disarming you and making you feel like you had as much right to be a part of this wacky art world as he or anyone else did, and he was always a pleasure to talk to. Shortly before his death, I was actually waiting for his quotes via email in regards to a show he curated at Joe Nahmad Gallery for his friend and painter Jan Franck that I was covering for a short piece in Forbes. The quotes didn’t come, and the piece temporarily got lost in the shuffle when the show came to a close. I thought it was strange that he passed the opportunity to discuss his friend’s work. I should have known that he wasn’t feeling well and regret pressing him for the quotes. 

Glenn O’Brien, who once described himself as an anarchist that believed if people had good manners there would be no need for laws, was a true New York original and icon. He brought together the city’s creative disciplines with its commerce and media in a way that actually defined the way that New York is viewed within the world. This city needs another Glenn O’Brien. We need another TV Party. But I worry that the millennial mindset is a million miles removed from the work ethic and iconic detachment of Glenn O’Brien. In a recent piece for Purple, O’Brien addressed the obvious shifts in New York culture, asking himself if this city can ever be perceived the way it once was as a hub of radical creativity and thought. “New York isn’t what it used to be,” he writes, “but no place else is, either. Our vulgarities are more interesting than yours.” Times change, but cool does not. Glenn O’Brien was a surprising optimist. His unique ‘vulgarity,’ laid-neck sophistication, and utterly refined taste will be sorely missed.