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Duck / Wabbit: how a looney title reflected a darker more forlorn time and context

Elizabeth Murray, “Duck / Wabbit,” 1992, Oil on canvas, 84 x 140 x 12 in. (213.4 x 355.6 x 30.5 cm) Collection of the Murray-Holman Family Trust, New York

Duck / Wabbit: how a looney title reflected a darker more forlorn time and context

by Jason Andrew

From a very early age, cartoons and the comics were important influences on the work of Elizabeth Murray. “I was raised on comics and cartoons,” she said, “I loved their graphic quality, how things jumped off the page.” She had her favorites: Donald Duck, Little Lulu, Orphan Annie, and Dick Tracey. "We lived on fantasy, not meat and potatoes," Murray said of her childhood. Her father loved the movies, and encouraged his three children to while away their time at a local cinema watching cartoons from morning to night. “When I think of Orphan Annie, I think of the brown of the dog, the red of her outfit,” Murray said, “and the enormous amount of darkness.”

Duck / Wabbit pays tribute to this fascination seemingly anthropomorphizing her materials by warping, twisting, and curving the canvas support. While the title of this work likely references her love of the Looney Tunes and in particular, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, it however, reflects a darker more forlorn time and context.

This elaborate, even decorative, work was completed around the time Murray was invited by the director Ron Vawter (1948-1994) to design a set for Roy Cohn / Jack Smith an evening-length performance composed of two monologues in which Vawter embodied these two eponymous historical figures as a means of reflecting on and critiquing a spectrum of possible approaches to gay identity. Ron Vawter performed dual roles of Roy Cohn—the racist, reactionary prosecutor of the Joe McCarthy era and beyond who battled against civil rights for homosexuals though he was homosexual himself—and Jack Smith, the open, avant-garde filmmaker/performance artist of Flaming Creatures. “Rarely has an actor undergone such a dramatic metamorphosis in the course of an evening,” exclaimed The New York Times.

Ron Vawter playing dual roles in  Roy Cohn / Jack Smith . Photo courtesy HowlRound

Ron Vawter playing dual roles in Roy Cohn / Jack Smith. Photo courtesy HowlRound

"At the same time, you couldn't pick two more vastly different reactions to being homosexual and responding to a society that told them their sexuality was wrong or bad or abnormal,” Vawter told The New York Times, “Cohn was in complete denial of his homosexuality and, more than that, on the attack against homosexuals. He was one of the gay community's worst enemies and a real advocate against homosexual rights. Smith was the reverse. He was an explosion out. His theatrical world had to do with ultimate flaunting. I sometimes think of them as chameleons who changed the coloration of their skin to avoid being eaten."

Commissioned by Creative Time, Inc., the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, San Francisco Artspace, the University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California at Berkeley, the Walker Art Center, and the Wexner Center for the Arts, the play was first presented by Garage Productions at The Performing Garage in May 1992. Vawter was a founding member of The Wooster Group, and also worked with many leading directors of the Downtown scene.

The performance responded to homophobia, particularly concerning the HIV/AIDS epidemic—a prejudice that was made ever-more bio-politically lethal due to the US federal government’s inaction—and the effect on gay expression. Roy Cohn died of AIDS complications in 1986. Jack Smith died of AIDS-related diseases in 1989. Vawter was inspired to create the show when he tested HIV-positive; he was diagnosed as having AIDS at about the time the play opened in New York. This was his final play as Vawter died on April 16, 1994 on a plane from Zurich to New York of an AIDS-related heart attack at the age of 45.

"There's no question that I made this piece because they both had AIDS and died of AIDS," Vawter told The New York Times, "But I picked moments in both their lives that were pre-AIDS because I really wanted it to be about repression and how the homosexual deals with repression. I didn't want to make it bad Roy Cohn and good Jack Smith. Although Roy was a first-class louse who destroyed a lot of people's lives, I'm trying to show that he was a product, that there were sexually repressive forces at play which produced a Roy Cohn. I can't help but wonder about Jack Smith. We'll never know what he might have been had he been able to use his creative force less as a reaction and more as a creative act."

Murray’s set design for Ron Vawter’s play Roy Cohn / Jack Smith. Photo: Murray-Holman Family Trust Archives, New York

Elizabeth Murray’s purple chaise longue set piece for Roy Cohn / Jack Smith. Photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery Archive

Murray’s sketches for “Jack Smith Chair Bed.” Collection of the Murray-Holman Family Trust, New York

Study for “Duck / Wabbit,” c. 1992. Collection of the Murray-Holman Family Trust, New York.

Ron Vawter in  Roy Cohn / Jack Smith . Credit: GOOD MACHINE / POMODORI FOUNDATION / THE LABORATORY FOR ICON AND IDIOM / Ronald Grant Archive / Mary / Alamy Stock Photo

Ron Vawter in Roy Cohn / Jack Smith. Credit: GOOD MACHINE / POMODORI FOUNDATION / THE LABORATORY FOR ICON AND IDIOM / Ronald Grant Archive / Mary / Alamy Stock Photo

The costuming consisted of Jack Smith “coiffed in customary Ancient Egyptian headgear, draped in chiffon and looking like a sheik who stumbled into a vat of Christmas glitter,” reported the Los Angeles Times. Murray’s set design echoing these elaborations consisted of numerous colorful yards of fabric, kitschy gold trinkets and vases, a variety of larger props, and included a toilet base, and a large elaborately ornate purple chaise longue (based on designs by Jack Smith).

Much of the decadence made it into Duck / Wabbit, which not only plays off the lunacy in dark times, but celebrates the flamboyancy of the culture, all through an audaciously constructed and richly painted shoe.

Duck/Wabbit is currently on view in Elizabeth Murray: Flying Bye at Camden Arts Centre, London, UK, through September 15, 2019.

Watch an excerpt from the film ROY COHN / JACK SMITH (courtesy Wooster Group Archives):