Bacchanal 1964-67 62 7/8" x 164"w dipytch above/ below The Studio 1965 120 1/2" x 79 1/2 "w CollectionThe Whitney Museum of American Art
Self-Portrait Painting 31" x 20"w
Sagg Main Beach, 1973-75 81 7/8" x 218 3/8"w
Fantasy About Freedom I 1973-76 92 3/4" x 105 7/8"w
The Mugging of the Muse 1971-74, 80" x 103"w Private Collection
Paul Georges’s (PG) The Mugging of the Muse was at the center of the first libel lawsuit against a painting in history. PG lost the suit in 1980, opening potential legal floodgates to the censorship of art, journalism, and freedom of speech. PG hired the expensive and brilliant premiere civil rights and First Amendment attorneys Victor Kovner and Harriette Dorsen, who helped him win on appeal protection of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression. The legal ordeal that began in 1974 ended in 1982.
Victor Kovner & Harriette Dorsen, lawyers for The Village Voice newspaper, had won prominent cases all the way to the Supreme Court, yet paying their $10k bill on a 10-year plan came at great personal sacrifice for PG and his family. Silberman and Siani vs. Paul Georges (1975-1982) was a lawsuit pitting court approved censorship against the right to freedom of speech in a painting. The unprecedented case was written about in global publications and is still taught at Stanford, Yale, and other law schools. The plaintiffs may have hoped to take over PG's capacious downtown loft by winning the case, as they lived in the same building at the time. Painter Jane Freilicher's husband Joe Hazan valiantly offered PG cash to forestall this danger if needed, though it fortunately was not. Grace Glueck wrote about the case in The New York Times, and other articles on the painting and the libel lawsuit are numerous. Yet 40 years after the triumphant court ruling the lawsuit pioneering the legal battle against censorship of the visual arts is little remembered today.
Siani began as a student of PG who followed him from Colorado. He got as far as Hoboken. In 1969, after much whining & pleading from him, PG reluctantly agreed that Siani's wife Hatsy could buy the 2nd floor at 85 Walker, the building PG founded as a co-op to protect his family when rent on Broadway + Bleecker skyrocketed from $28 in 1960 to $150 a month in '68. Once Siani had a loft he and the hallway reeked of (cannabis) dope all day. PG, a WWII veteran who had endured extensive heavy combat during his four-year enlistment, was infuriated by Siani and his lay-about friend Silberman’s antics, which included voting for Nixon and cheering on the Vietnam War. PG expressed his outrage with his brush.
In the painting, the faces of Siani and Silberman are portrayed as lurid masks, recalling neighborhood memories of a stoned Siani leering at underage girls until his eyes and mouth twitched uncontrollably, revealing his frothing lust to the little ones. In 1974 a slide of the painting was projected at the unruly weekly artists meeting, when a whiny wail arose from the darkness in the rear. For eight years Siani seethed and threatened, trying to force PG to change the nose. He finally sued. His socialist club supplied an attorney by the name of Robert Projansky for free, and together they concocted the infamous first libel lawsuit against a painting in history.
Siani was socially ostracized after eventually losing. Even though he lived in the same building the Georges family rarely saw him. Silberman resided w/his mother in Coney Island, then in the Creedmoor mental asylum. Until the mid-1980s he still called to breathe heavily into the Georges’ answering machine, a habit stemming from the mid-1970s, which had forced the family to buy an answering machine in the first place. Siani died on the 2nd Floor of 85 Walker, riddled with cancer and sneering down his long twisted nose at a joint. The Mugging of the Muse is allegorical. The muse represents art, inspiration, and freedom. Ironically, the muggers are wearing masks to hide their identities, which are nonetheless revealed—the masks are of themselves. They carry knives to treacherously stab the ethereal muse, intending to pull her into the dark, stinking inferno of sweatshop exhaust fumes in the alley. The hydrant on Walker Street flows blood red in a warning that the dilapidated bum-infested street circa 1970's could protect neither women nor men. Three muggers against one muse who just wants to be free and un-assaulted. What can fight off the evil? The artist and his dog? An angel? Light, life, the sky, the clouds—freedom itself?
The fantastical drama occurs at the desolate corner of Cortlandt Alley and Walker before the recent pave and spray job w/extra deodorizer moved in. In recent decades films, TV shows, and music videos featuring Smurfs, Crocodile Dundee, POSE, and Phil Collins have filmed in the alley. PG's painting allegorically immortalizes Cortlandt Alley’s fearsome past. Like the muse it depicts, The Mugging of the Muse emerged from its battle battered yet victorious. PG won the appeal, protecting the constitutional right to freedom of speech.