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Kathy Acker
Kathy Acker at the gym, 1984via Frieze

Chris Kraus on the art, sex and myths of Kathy Acker

The cult author charts the boundary-breaking writer, punk feminist artist and enfant terrible of the 80s avant-garde literary scene in an intimate new book

Kathy Acker’s painful, untimely death from cancer at 50 was commemorated by friends who ingested her ashes, while the remainder was thrown into the Pacific Ocean by an unwelcome astrologer confidante of hers. It’s a chaotic and tragic scene that writer Chris Kraus delicately renders to embark on a breathless ride of a biography, After Kathy Acker. Kraus traces the patch-working drama, friendships and taboo breaking that went into Acker’s rise and fall as an experimental writer and punk feminist icon.

Acker first descended into international consciousness with the publication of her jarring novel Blood and Guts in High School, a cut-up narrative reaching across heartbreak, slavery, incest, a re-reading of The Scarlet Letter, and detailed, full-page spreads of pornographic illustrations. Blood and Guts is wild, erotic, aggressive, and unpleasant – to be read with a frown and a raised eyebrow, but also a wry smile, as she drops soul stinging jokes: “most writers are crazy ‘cause they sit in their rooms all the time and scribble down stuff no one wants to read.”

Of course, Acker escaped obscurity to enjoy a career stretching across 27 years, and people from the avant-garde art world to a punky 80s London devoured her work; its scandalous reputation and fierce intelligence elevated her to become what Kraus calls a “post punk icon of the Bush/Thatcher years”.

“It was so sexy,” Kraus remembers, “to see someone dressed in high-fashion garments, leather, big artisanal jewellery, tattoos, speaking in such an informed and articulate way about literature and philosophy. No one had seen that before.”

The towering brilliance of Acker captivated Kraus, the celebrated author behind I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia, from when she first arrived aged 21 in New York on the downtown Manhattan arts scene. She recalls seeing Kathy and her entourage at clubs and readings – “they were glamorous, powerful, cool.”

This wide-eyed admiration naturally led to Kraus being deeply affected by Acker’s death in 1997. “I wanted to write the book immediately, but it was too soon,” she explains. As a result, After Kathy Acker is a culmination of years of exhaustive research, pulling from the archives of friends and colleagues. It threw up fateful connections between the women. “We both had important relationships with Sylvere Lotriger, and – as I discovered, reading her letters – casual sex with some of the same guys – but even more witchy than this was discovering our common influences.  She did a project with Lil Picard, a veteran of Zurich Dada, when she was 28; I did a project about the Zurich Dadaists Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings when I was the same age.”

“Acker’s highest value was the pursuit of her work, rather than forming lasting friendships” – Chris Kraus

As such, an understanding of the sexual Venn diagrams of the avant-garde literati, and a head for Acker’s erudite critical sources, allows the biography to open out into a compassionate portrait of a person who wove tall tales around herself to avoid the difficult truths of her life. “Everyone tells a story somewhat differently, depending upon who they’re talking to, but in Kathy’s case, the discrepancies were massive!” However, Kraus adds, “The point was never to catch her out in lies or mistruths, but to understand how she hoped to be seen.”

A deeply satisfying result of shining this light through the fog of myths was the economic reality of a writer who turned her back on the Upper East Side wealth she was born into to live in some of New York’s most deprived neighbourhoods. “I wanted to answer the question: How was she living? “ Kraus confirms. “In the art world, means of support tend to remain invisible, making those who don’t have independent means of support feel like failures.”

Her detective work beautifully weaves together a wide ranging index of voices, sources, letters and diary entries that showcase the progress of Acker’s style of drawing from life. “It was fascinating to see what she chose to import, and what she did not, and the slight cross-outs and changes she made between diary and manuscript – she was teaching herself how to write,” Kraus says.

Acker was completely radical in her efforts to break down barriers to pioneer new forms of writing. She meshed together high culture and underground genres, and experimented with her own forms of consciousness, tracking her dreams in intricate maps. She even tried to break down every possible barrier between her and another person, the mathematician and philosopher Alan Sondheim. The osmosis of knowledge peaks in the explicit experimental film Blue Tape: co-directed by Acker and Sondheim, it chronicles two days spent having sex and talking. Acker performs sexual power play that, while consensual, is squirmingly cruel.

“First person writing is everywhere in culture, but no one has pursued it as aggressively and confrontationally as Acker did in her novels. Her ruthlessness, recklessness and wit feel new and exciting” – Chris Kraus

Among friends’ tales of narcissistic late night phone calls and appalling houseguest behaviour, as well as the cascades of drama-filled letters, even Kraus’ acknowledgement that Kathy “was famously difficult” seems like a slamming understatement. At the centre of a constellation of avant-garde creatives, Acker burned white hot – and those who were pulled into her orbit were often scorched. And yet, Kraus points out, “Acker’s highest value was the pursuit of her work, rather than forming lasting friendships.”

This uncompromising mono focus in her writing that reworks, probes and pushes the intensely personal is why her work strikes a chord now. Generations are discovering her published email exchanges, while zines are today being produced in response to her books; this fittingly cut-up, DIY style keeps Acker’s legacy alive in modern youth culture. Kraus agrees that “first person writing is everywhere in culture, but no one has pursued it as aggressively and confrontationally as Acker did in her novels. Her ruthlessness, recklessness and wit feel new and exciting.”

Ultimately, Kraus entwines accounts of a writer into an impressive tapestry, with Acker emerging from the chaos of a difficult life. Almost 20 years after her death, she stands out for her total lack of compromise and dedication to her craft, and the result is a figure whose shock tactics refuse to date.

After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus is out now on Allen Lane