Before Shel Silverstein inhabited the bedrooms of countless children through buoyant poems and illustrations, he held a firm position on the pages of Playboy. Silverstein regularly contributed cartoons to the adult magazine throughout the 1950s before his 1964 breakout success The Giving Tree launched his career as a children’s author. He has become what I term a “cultural father figure,” a man who authors childhood experiences and guides parental rituals. After creating an archive of Silverstein’s oeuvre, it became evident to me that his work for children and adults were not isolated practices. A dark underbelly emerged between his children’s poems about taking a communal bath or selling your sister. His cultural material has undoubtedly fashioned many young boys into men.
I juxtaposed imagery from both bodies of Silverstein’s work on a silkscreened quilt.
“Bedtime Stories” began at 8 pm, the bedtime of a child. Visitors indulged in sleepytime tea and spent time with the quilt, which hung from the ceiling of the upstairs, oak-paneled bedroom-cum-gallery. I entered the room, stripped down to my Calvin Klein briefs, and assumed the fetal position on a twin-size bed in an adjacent room. Then, an older man took down the quilt and tucked me into bed, the dialectical site of sex and storytelling. He caressed my cheek, lingering perhaps for a little too long. After the older man exited, my father’s voice echoed from two speakers in an adjacent closet, reading The Giving Tree to me as I fell asleep.
Audiences flowed in and out of the upstairs gallery to watch my slumber throughout
the remainder of the night. The observation of my unconscious body, which they would have to approach to read the small font of the quilt, cast these viewers as voyeurs. This scenario recalled Warhol’s 1963 “antifilm,” “Sleep,” which depicted his then-lover John Giorno resting for five hours and twenty minutes. Like the antifilm, my performance blurred the line between witnessing an innocuous act with boredom and viewing a sexually positioned, unclothed male body with desire.
Masculinity is passed down, like the tales we tell our sons at night. The older man’s touch triggered something in my unconscious, and as the lights went out, the phantom memory of my own father emerged in a latent infusion. This elusive and suggestive bedtime companion, fatherly and sexual, mirrored the role of Silverstein himself as a cultural father figure.