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Brigid Berlin’s needlepoint renditions of NY Post front pages are a sampler of celebrity, schadenfreude and social commentary

An hour of conversation with Brigid Berlin passes quickly, particularly if you like boldface names.  William Randolph Hearst, Marian Davies, Gary Cooper, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Andy Warhol, and dozens of others, have played roles small and large in her life. The famous were plentiful in childhood because of her father’s place at the helm of Hearst’s enormous publishing company – a position he held in spite of his daughter having strangled goldfish in the fountain at San Simeon.
 
The famous remained plentiful in adulthood because of Berlin’s wit and enthusiastic participation in the fizzy art-and-nightlife cocktail of Manhattan in the 1960s and 70s. She was an avid clubber, eventually a fixture at friend Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, and all the while an obsessive knitter, needlepointer, and art-maker.  Her notorious 500-page Cock Book featured drawings by Berlin (and famous friends and nameless acquaintances alike) of penises in various guises.  Cecil Beaton, she reports, drew his own portrait as a cock.  Jane Fonda’s wore a necklace of match-heads and roses.  Leonard Cohen is said to have refused to draw and wrote instead, “Let me be the shy one in your book.”
 
“There was nothing pornographic about it, you know,” Berlin states.  “We just filled a $10 copy of a book whose cover said Topical Bible with Cruden’s Condordance, but which was completely blank.  A misprint. So I carried it around in a Gucci bag, and everyone I met did a drawing with the baby Windsor & Newton watercolor set I kept with it. It was more hilarious than anything else.”  So hilarious (and interesting) that artist Richard Prince recently bought it for $175,000.
 
The series of needlepoint NY Post covers came a few years after Cock Book, and were inspired in part by her close friend, the late court journalist Dominick Dunne.  “He would come home after a long day covering the O.J. trial, or the Menendez brothers, or Jon Benet Ramsey, and we would talk on the phone for two hours as he described what he’d seen.  I started the pillows as a gift for him, because I knew it would flip him out. That he would love them.”  The pillows render in needlepoint especially eyebrow-raising Post headlines – as in Well Hung, to announce the White House installation of Bill Clinton’s portrait, or I Am No Freak, quoting Michael Jackson, in court during the child molestation scandal.  Dunne, Berlin tells, wrote “Yes you are” on the Michael Jackson pillow, in both a wink at the trial and a riposte to Berlin.
 
The pillows’ commentary on our society’s simultaneous attraction to and rage against celebrities is especially poignant because of the medium: needlepoint. Who imagines needlepoint as a weapon? But the soft, cuddly wrapper of Berlin’s cushions conceals a dead-on dual message: Be famous at your own peril. And feed on the misery of fallen icons at the risk of having nothing better in your world.   The pillows describe our salacious, media-saturated era as thoroughly as 18th-century needlepoint samplers capture the flavor of early America.  The imagery of the moment, the content of the zeitgeist, is captured clearly in both motif and method. Without Berlin’s needlepointed reconsideration of the tabloid originals, would we slow down enough to shiver at the splendid, squawking squalor of it all?
 
Berlin herself, however, isn’t interested in analyzing her work.  “Whatever I’ve done, I myself have questioned whether it’s art or not.  It gets written up as art, sure. But I just do what I like to do.”  Next on the agenda is perhaps a series of pop-up theaters, with very cocky performers on stage. And probably a thorough memoir of her, shall we say, very confident approach to life. In any case, we can continue to expect a little humor, and a little sting, from Berlin.
 

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