Glenn O’Brien, the writer, editor, and aesthete-about-town who shaped the cultural identity of 1980s New York, has died. O’Brien had been combatting a serious illness for years. He was 70.
A dapper, instantly recognizable art world fixture with bright white hair and reliably impeccable jackets, O’Brien trained his dry, deadpan wit on art, music, and fashion as an editor and contributor for Rolling Stone, Oui, High Times, Allure, Esquire, and The New Yorker, among many other publications. He wrote long-running, influential columns on music (“Glenn O’Brien’s BEAT”) for Interview, on advertising (“Like Art”) for Artforum, and men’s fashion (“The Style Guy”) for Details and GQ.
O’Brien was born in Cleveland. He spent his college years at Georgetown University, where he became friends with the art writer Bob Colacello. The pair went on to study film at Columbia University and become the editors of Interview in the early 1970s, when Andy Warhol was still publishing the magazine out of the Factory.
“They thought, ‘Let’s get some nice clean-cut college kids who aren’t amphetamine addicts and see if they can run the magazine,’ ” O’Brien told the New York Times in 2015.
In the 1980s, O’Brien effectively channeled the Factory for the Mudd Club crew with his public-access television show TV Party, a blend of live music, half-coherent interviews, zany skits, and idiosyncratic debauchery.
“Instead of everybody going to a club, they would show up at this TV studio,” said Chris Stein, the Blondie guitarist who cofounded the show, in 2015. TV Party was broadcast live on Tuesday mornings at 12:30 a.m. from 1978 to 1982 in a small studio anyone could rent for $60 an hour to air their own public-access programming.
“The show ran on Channel D and Channel J, and was quite popular with the kids,” O’Brien said in 2014. “We lucked into following the Robin Byrd Show for a while, and so inherited an audience of horny guys. We also got a big high school following thanks to smoking a bunch of pot and talking shit.”
One episode opens with O’Brien rolling a joint with virtuosic skill while blindfolded. Later on, the fashion photographer Steven Meisel gives a makeover to a girl he met in a nearby bar before the musician Fab Five Freddie starts taking phone calls from viewers. Guests over the years included the artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Chris Burden, and Robert Mapplethorpe, and the musicians David Byrne, Mick Jones, and Iggy Pop. Debbie Harry once stopped by to bounce around on a pogo stick.
“The show never officially ended,” O’Brien once wrote. “Chris got sick and almost died, I got married and decided I needed to make some money, some people went to rehab, some left town, and some died of AIDS, which had just appeared… We had a good run fucking up television, though. Cursing, getting high, advocating subversion, being party desperados.”
O’Brien was busy with other projects in the final years of TV Party. He wrote the screenplay for Downtown 81, which stars a 19-year-old Basquiat, and he cofounded BOMB magazine with Betsy Sussler, the current editor, and the artist Sarah Charlesworth, among others. His personal art collection includes works by Charlesworth and her Pictures Generations peers, such as Richard Prince, as well as pieces by his close friends Christopher Wool, James Nares, and Tom Sachs.
O’Brien’s involvement in the fashion world extended to advertising collaborations with blue-chip brands. He dreamed up ad campaigns for companies including Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, and Chanel. O’Brien met his third wife, the art and fashion publicist Gina Nanni, at Barneys New York, where he was the creative director of advertising and she was working in the PR department, in the mid-1990s. The couple shared a loft in NoHo and were often seen together at art and fashion events.
He funneled his many years of experience on the scene into How to Be a Man, a Guide to Style and Behavior for the Modern Gentleman (2011), an offhand melange of snappy aphorisms and personal musings on good manners, with Rizzoli.
“Don’t hide your mistakes; they may be the best part of your résumé,” he cautions in its pages. Also, in an ironic twist for a veteran style columnist, O’Brien advises, “Don’t tell people they are dressed wrong. You might think you are helping someone who is a mess, and maybe you are, but at the risk of being hated. Think of it this way: dressed as they are now, they make you look even better. Without the tacky, the unsightly, and the fashion victimized, there would be no best-dressed list.”
Two thousand fiften was a busy year for O’Brien. His relationship with GQ ended acrimoniously, with him leaving the magazine and its editors assigning a new writer to his column. He was quick to lambast the decision in an interview.
“I created the Style Guy, not GQ… Their proprietary attitude toward what I’ve done is not only insulting, but really unoriginal,” he said. “They could have at least called their replacement the ‘Style Intern.’ ” That same year O’Brien launched an online show, “Tea at the Beatrice with Glenn O’Brien,” a subdued successor to TV Party on M2M/Apple TV, in which he chatted informally with his art and fashion friends, including Richard Prince, Olivier Zahm, Inez and Vinnodh, and Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, of Proenza Schouler. He also became an editor at large at Maxim.
O’Brien’s interests were eclectic, but fine art often brought out some of his best insights. In a piece on James Nares, O’Brien describes navigating the Armory Show with a certain melancholy:
“The poet Max Blagg and I wandered the aisles hoping [for] outrage and epiphany. We found lots of irony instead. The art world is in a most ironical mood, it seems. We discovered little but gestural humor at high prices. Tongues were impacted in cheek. Starved for the shock of the new, we were offered instead the persistence of the same old same old. The principal trends I noticed were small bronze possibly feminist animals and the apotheosis of Andreas Gursky et. al. and the big, busy, mindblowing “Oh wow” photographs that transmute the utterly mundane into bigger than life vision. I realized, a bit glumly, that the world has utterly lost the importance of being earnest.”