“I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going: The Art Scene and Downtown New York in the 1980s” by Peter McGough— Life With David McDermott

McGough, Peter “I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going: The Art Scene and Downtown New York in the 1980s”, Pantheon, 2019.

Life with David McDermott

Amos Lassen

Peter McGough’s memoir of life with artist David McDermott is funny and brutal at the same time. It is also a very candid look at New York’s Lower East Side of the 1980s and mid-1990s and the extreme naiveté and dysfunction that would destroy men’s lives.

McGough escaped the troubled life of growing up gay in Syracuse, New York by going to art school in Manhattan. but then dropped out, took jobs in clubs and met McDermott who was fascinating and worldly. The two agreed to collaborate with each other on their art and their lifestyle. McGough takes us back to the seedy East Village of that time and his friends and acquaintances Keith Haring, Rene Ricard, Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Jacqueline and Julian Schnabel, among others. They would spend their nights at the Ninth Circle, Danceteria, and Studio 54 and going to openings at the FUN Gallery; or visiting friends in the Chelsea Hotel. By the mid-1980s, they were very successful and showed their works at three Whitney Biennials and were represented by the best galleries here and abroad. McGough and McDermott were known for their painting, photography and “time experiment” interiors. But then, during one night, it was all gone. Then one day in the mid-1990s, McGough would find that he, like so many of his friends, had been diagnosed with AIDS.

It is so important that we have these memoirs about AIDS because we cannot allow ourselves to forget what the disease took from us (and is still taking). McGough and McDermott is the story of “how lives can become completely entwined even in failure and what it costs to reemerge, phoenix-like, and carry on.” Through McGough’s words, we experience not just death and rebirth but “re-death and re-rebirth.” His memoir is written in great detail and filled with names we know (and don’t know). The two men were a gay couple who loved life and exuded charm. The highs and lows of their lives correspond with the highs and lows of the city. As we read, we feel the excitement of creative and sexual freedom that was destroyed too soon by a disease that did not have to be.

Before reading this, I had never heard of either McGough or McDermott but then I grew up far away physically from the New York scene. All I know of it is what I have read. They seemed to know everyone. Besides those already mentioned we read about Madonna (before she made it), Michael Kors, Lagerfeld and so many others.

David McDermott was quite eccentric. He lived an austere lifestyle and only wore 19th century clothing, had no electricity, was vegan and ate raw food. He believes in Christian Science and this was almost fatal for him.  When we get to AIDS, the book becomes very personal and heartbreaking. Eventually he saw reason and enjoyed the benefits of today’s medication that, in effect, kept him alive and he is still working today. McGough is also a survivor and his story is amazing and will keep you reading.  (By the way, this is McGough’s first book).