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THE EXTRAORDINARY JILL
by Charlie Finch
 
Jill Johnston, who died yesteday at 81, was the very first writer in our era to write as an open lesbian. She was part of a cohort of writers at the Village Voice, beginning in the 1960s, that made that paper the only real read in town and still influences writers (at least middle-aged writers like me) today.

The Voice had Michael Zwerin on music; the great Arthur Bell, one of the first to write about AIDS and one of the first to die from it; Howard Smith, who chronicled the club scene when it was still secret and exciting; and Mary Perot Nichols, who knew the ins and outs of City Hall and Albany better than anybody (how we could use her today!).

Now Jill has joined them in that special purgatory in which writers, lightning rods in life, soon forgotten in death, have been placed by the deity for telling a little too much truth. Certainly, Jill's weekly column "Lesbian Nation" shocked back then, but not for the reasons you think: it dared to posit that lesbianism was not just the dream eroticism of Sappho or the back-garden dalliances of Bloomsbury, but that being a proud, out dyke was fun, even big fun.

We artworlders especially remember Jill as a longtime contributor to Art in America, to whose offices she would dutifully walk up five flights of stairs, because, like the legendary New Yorke" editor William Shawn, she had a fear of being trapped in elevators.

Jill took art far more seriously, as a writer, than anything else in her life. As a participant, she danced with Ray Johnson at the Factory in a series of famous Fred McDarrah photos and was an indefatigable gallery goer. But Jill's most notorious contribution to our world was her 1996 book on Jasper Johns, in which she chronicled Jasper's fear of her as a stalker of his life and privacy.

Jill and Jasper were friends, but then she started asking intimate questions about his art, and they were not about its purported homoerotic content, but about Jasper's Southern roots, his military forebears, his uprbringing in a ramshackle house full of relatives and his use of the famous Matthias Grunwald altarpiece repeatedly in his work. Jil's curiosity bordering on benign obsession, she was the first to admit, got Jasper's goat.

Well, goatgetting is what the best critics do, and Jill got her share. I hope she has a soft cubbyhole on the eternal farm.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).



 



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