My Cousin Adam (The Late Paul Cotton)

Guestblogger Paul Spinrad is a freelance writer/editor, and is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine. He is the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, and was an early contributor to bOING bOING when it was an online zine. He lives in San Francisco. 


I have a living cousin who was an early conceptual and performance artist, and I think his work is wonderful. His given name is Paul Cotton, but now he goes by adam, or "adam (The Late Paul Cotton)."

adam studied sculpture at UC Berkeley in the 1960's, and for his final thesis project he submitted his own naked body in a 5-piece unpainted canvas business suit, framed (in a sense) by numerous paper pathways a chain of letters leading into the exhibit room from the halls and walkways outside.

Since then, his work has always been about the body and presence, and also laden with puns, mythology and religion, and plays between high and low culture. His communiques are called "Art Link-Letters" for the way they link the reader to art, and link art of the body to the world of letters. His "Zippily Boo-Duh" costume persona has wings on his feet to invoke Hermes, who bridges different worlds: stasis and revolution, the dead past and the eternal present, the Alphabet and the Goddess.

Like many others during the Sixties, adam was inspired by Norman O. Brown, whose books called for breaking free of the past and ending repression. But while others merely discussed Brown, adam enacted two performances wherein he entered Brown's classroom lectures at UC Santa Cruz. In the traditional sense, he did this uninvited, but in another sense, he was invited by everything that Brown stood for in his writing. You can see adam's video documentation of his second attempt, "The Second Norman Invasion," here: Part 1, 9:18 (includes long title sequence) / Part 2, 8:51.

adam has given much creative thought to his relationship to Norman O. Brown. Indeed, a letter that he wrote to Brown back in 1969 was exhibited earlier this year at the Berkeley Art Museum, in a show drawn from their permanent collection called Galaxy: A Hundred Or So Stars Visible to the Naked Eye" (With a subtitle like that, I would have titled it "Small Star Cluster," but that's just me.)

adam sees his work (and therefore himself), as the embodiment of Brown's ideas, and his "Norman Invasion" performances apply multiple metaphors to the relationship between the two, including bride and groom, and Jesus Christ and John the Baptist. But Brown himself, faced with this costumed classroom invader, didn't know my cousin from Adam. Brown did not seem to recognize my cousin as a cosmic bride, an epic fulfillment of Brown's ideas, or even a sweet and thoughtful artist presenting (present-ing) him with the ultimate gift, himself, and thereby inviting him to experience the liberation that he advocated throughout his writing. Instead, Brown just ran out of the classroom.

And so Brown became not N.O. but NO! Brown– the archetypal father figure rejecting his son, telling him that his time has not yet come. Years later, my cousin attended an appearance by Brown at Cody's Books in Berkeley, and Brown said, "I cannot personally live my vision."

I don't think it's good for people to interrupt classrooms and I certainly understand Brown's reaction. But I also think this is all such a fascinating body of work on many levels, loaded with great attention to detail. It makes me sad that Brown didn't embrace my cousin's offering and know how disappointed my cousin must have felt– but in terms of good theater, I think it couldn't be any other way. As performance art, it goes deeper and is more daring, more emotionally risky, than any other piece I'm aware of (not that I'm too up on the scene). The whole Norman O. Brown thing is something that my cousin still cares deeply about, decades later, and it strikes me as so human– sad, beautiful, funny, tragic, hopeful, etc. He isn't just being clever with it, and he doesn't want to move on from it all just for the sake of following what's happening with the art world or retaining public attention. He still wants to talk about these art actions, and rightly so. I don't think the message underneath them is any less relevant now than it was back in the hippie days.

Unrelated to Norman O. Brown, but also interesting, here is a 1971 radio interview with adam about his experience being physically beaten at the Esalen Institute for having removed his clothing on the premises.

Also, my cousin's sculpture "Random House Converter/Trance-Former," which consists of a series of frames that invite the viewer to step through, was exhibited last year in Paul McCarthy's "Low Life Slow Life" show at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. The piece one of his pieces is also slated for inclusion in a Spring 2011 show called "State of Mind," covering California conceptual and performance art from the 60's and 70's, co-organized by the UC Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive and the Orange County Museum of Art. I mention these two things with a sense of advocating for my cousin's continued relevance!