Photo of Edward Brezinski, 1979 (© Marcus Leatherdale)

“There will always be another young artist who has something to say.” So concludes Brian Vincent’s debut documentary Make Me Famous, which chronicles the life and bizarre disappearance of the late painter Edward Brezinski (1954–2007), who died in obscurity decades after many in his Neo-Expressionist cohort rose to fame. But what exactly did Brezinski have to say? The film doesn’t really tell us. If anything, the title gestures toward the artist’s most salient trait: Brezinski desperately wanted to be rich and famous.

Raised in suburban Michigan, Brezinski, who graduated from the prestigious San Francisco Institute of Art, is described by a bevy of art world talking heads — including David McDermott, Peter McGough, and Sur Rodney Sur — as “confident,” “intense,” and “fearless,” along with “awkward, uncomfortable in his skin.” “He exuded a kind of [sexuality] to me that was very arresting,” recounts Sur. “The only other artist[s] that I can remember had that kind of direct exuberance and intention [are] Basquiat and Richard Hofmann.”

But Brezinski was not Basquiat, and even his closest friends and colleagues seem torn about his relevance. While the doc provides a vivid picture of the lively East Village scene, it does little to prove that the painter should have risen to the top. (If anything, it exposes how challenging it must have been to make art while living in squalor.) 

To be fair, it’s not easy to make a documentary about someone who is little known and no longer alive, and even harder when there’s limited audio or video footage of that person. It’s hard to tell if Brezinski is being sarcastic or mischievous, cheekily mugging for the lens or smugly self-aggrandizing; the audio is especially hard to make out. Chris McKim’s 2020 documentary on David Wojnarowicz, Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker, benefited enormously from the sheer volume of cassette tapes available after the artist’s death. Vincent makes the most of the resources at hand — archival photographs and interviews with East Village artists — but he never shares why he’s so enamored of the painter, or why he is so important. We are meant to take this as a given. But it is not.

Edward Brezinski, “Self Portrait” (1976) (© Edward Brezinski)

Make Me Famous also skirts some of Brezinki’s more troubling behavior. When uptown gallerist Annina Nosei snubs the artist’s friend Kenny Scharf, Brezinski throws a glass of red wine in her face at Scharf’s show in SoHo a few weeks later. Nosei, now 84, recounts calling the police, feeling “menaced” by the artist, afraid to come across him on the street. The entire account is played as amusing, as though Nosei’s highbrow status makes accosting her acceptable. In this moment, and a handful of others, Brezinksi comes across as an entitled alcoholic whose misogyny and arrogance were pardoned at the time, and even currently by the doc, because he was supposedly some overlooked genius — he certainly thought of himself as such.

The film shifts from an account of the East Village scene to a veritable whodunit when the crew heads to France with Brezinski’s friends, Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger, to see whether Edward did actually die or, as Vincent puts it, “faked his death.” When his death certificate finally turns up in Cannes, it’s played as out as a giant twist, but the premise felt far-fetched to begin with. We know that Brezinksi struggled for decades with alcoholism, not to mention levels of indigence that, during his Berlin years in the ’90s, bordered on abjection.

The problem with Make Me Famous isn’t that it exposes how rough it really was to be an artist in 1980s New York, or even that it follows the life of a troubled, morally fraught protagonist. Both of these are important to redressing an oft-glamorized period in art history. The problem is that it often scans as an homage to a past era “purer” than today, but then presents abundant evidence to the contrary: artists going out of their way to infiltrate what would later become the blue-chip gallery circuit, Brezinski shamelessly self-promoting himself at every event and party. 

Other recent art docs — Lea Glob’s Apolonia, Apolonia (2023) and David Gutnik’s Rule of Two Walls (2023) — do a much stronger job displaying the struggles of artists making work against significant odds. Even if no one “makes you famous,” that doesn’t mean you become an asshole.

B-Side Gallery opening, 1984 (© Gary Azon)

Make Me Famous is currently screening in New York and will be in theaters nationwide starting in September.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....