Black is an Ideal: A Kaddish for Cay

By Cary Loren

And yet out of eternity a thread
separates itself on the blackness,
a horizontal thread
that fumes a little with pallor upon the dark.
–D. H. Lawrence, “Ship of Death”

“The tour isn’t finished,” says Ken Mikolowski, as he leads the way in his lakeside home outside Ann Arbor. Room after room is filled with amazing artworks—treasure from the lions of the Cass Corridor. In a spare bedroom, Bahnmiller’s collages are laid out on a bed like dresses, some sitting in a rocking chair. On the wall hangs a large painted blueprint of Tiger Stadium.  He opens a cigar box holding a dozen of Ann Mikolowski’s miniature portraits. Near the kitchen, a metal Good Humor ice-cream sign hangs, requisitioned by Newton. A roomful of poetry books is packed behind antique barrister bookcases, memories and gifts from friends and readings. He turns a corner in the hallway. “Here it is—the piece Gordie gave me. He wrote ‘For Ann’ on the back, and it’s dated 2003, several years after her death. It’s still not dry after 18 years!” Mikolowski pries it from the wall, leaving a sticky black stain. “Gordie told me there were 40 layers of black paint on this thing. He did a layer each day for forty days.”

The blackness of Newton’s For Ann is penetrating and final, like a black sun. It expands outward into three layered squares, its 3-D surface an oil slick of reflections. It is solidified pain and dark matter; the emptiness Ann left behind for Ken and Cay, and the pain Newton absorbed from heavy metal poisons. Similar to African N’Kisi—the spirit sculptures of the Kongo covered in blood and nails—For Ann is also voodoo and pulsates like several beating hearts.   


Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) created the infamous Black Square in 1915, which has been called the “most famous, most enigmatic and most frightening painting known to man … a victory over the sun … bargaining with the devil … the simple formula of nothingness.”1 The Black Square was a shocking statement of “absolute form” for the time, a total break with past history and key work of Suprematism, combining geometric forms with spiritualism merged into an anti-materialist avant-garde movement.

Inspired by Malevich and Mondrian, Frank Stella, known mainly for his colorful geometric forms, began his career with a series of Black Paintings when he first arrived in New York in 1958. Stella often said, “If you played my career backwards, so if we started from now as the beginning, and ended with the Black Paintings, I think people would be a lot happier.”2

Bahnmiller and Gordon Newton collaborated on a series of abstract dioramas beginning in the late 1990s. Slightly larger than shoe boxes, they were blackish in tone, built-up in layered paper with objects embedded into a thick, uneven, sandy, and resinous surface, and then encapsulated inside custom Plexiglass boxes that the artists had professionally-made. Their individual contributions blended together into enigmas with a weightless alien appearance that makes them seem to float in space. For over a decade, they hung inside the waiting room and offices of their dentist, who traded artwork for services.3


Bahnmiller identified as Jewish. The reason was unexplained, but perhaps because many of her friends, collectors, and gallerists were Jews. She read Jewish books on philosophy, poetry, and the Holocaust. She and Newton both loved matzo ball soup. “She never converted to Judaism, not as far as I know,” says Aviv. “She considered herself sort of Jewish. Either her great-grandmother or grandmother was Jewish.”4

Wendy Silverman reflects, “I went out to her place in Hamtramck, and we had tea and became friends. She gave me the impression she was Jewish and her parents spoke German. She told these esoteric stories about growing up on steamer ships—like it was out of the 1940s! She always felt victimized and that nobody supported her enough. She never felt she got the acknowledgement she deserved. With some people, no matter what happens to them, that’s just how they feel. Nobody could get through to Cay. She couldn’t understand that people enjoyed her work and thought it was important. She never felt loved enough or accepted.”

Fig. 2

In May or June of 2006, Bahnmiller moved into Newton’s home in Southwest Detroit, after she was forced out of her home and studio in the Cass Corridor neighborhood by the “Little Caesars Pizza” Ilitch family organization, which bought her building and evicted her. Her modest and affordable Park Street duplex, one block off Woodward, was one of a few homes still left on the street, surrounded by businesses owned by the Ilitch family: Fox Theater, Olympia Entertainment parking lots, the Mike Ilitch School of Business, and Motor City Casino.

Bahnmiller passed away by suicide in January 25, 2007, the coroner’s report concluding the cause of death was a mix of alcohol and psychotropic drugs. A letter signed by the artist, dated, and folded inside one of her artist books, now sits in the archive ar What Pipeline gallery in Detroit. Bahnmiller’s attorney, Larry Deitch, wrote, “Dear Cay, Per your request, I enclose a copy of your will marked ‘null and void.’ This was the only executed copy which I had. I wish you the best.” At the bottom, Bahnmiller wrote simply, “Thank you.” On the reverse, she attached a scrap of paper, a last directive: “1:25 PM, 07122  6/22/06 Where I want my ashes scattered | Beaufait and Pulford | And off Mack NE of Market | Haydn #3 D#? Too Brahms.”4 That was what she wanted—to be buried in the city she loved, and a simple memorial with music. But her last wishes were unknown at the time, and a service was quickly arranged by Aviv and other friends at Ira Kaufman Chapel. Bahnmiller was buried in a simple “kosher” wooden casket at the Bahnmiller family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery, located in Chelsea, Michigan. 

Cay Bahnmiller’s twilight history with Detroit’s Cass Corridor art movement was a connection to night, death, and the color black; an art that was difficult, volatile, unknowable. Her suffering and hardships might’ve been averted just by looking away, but she never did. She made an art out of disenchantment and intense observing. Her life was rich in paradox and confrontation, a collection of broken pottery, rolling pins, and city ruins. The Corridor had become a mirage; a vanishing culture, only to return as casinos, pricey lofts, and touristy clip joints, branded as Midtown. Gentrified out of her home in the Corridor, like many others, the last years of the artist’s life had left her feeling isolated. In a letter to Ken Mikolowski dated February 20, 2003, the artist had written:

... I don’t want to die, contrary to popular opinion, but I miss everyone so much that has left. I keep thinking I’ll forget but I don’t. If I cry, tough. I’ve even been called a walking rain barrel. Fuck ’em. The thought of not painting, or drawing, or writing, terrifies me. Just like death does, and the sound of the pigeon’s wings. I hear voices. Everywhere, a lot. Like it’s someone I know or music, wind, or bird’s wings. My favorite pigeon is Celestine, and Lillie whacked her real good this winter. How will I get this letter to a mailbox??5

With special thanks to Beth Aviv, Robert Lebow, Ken Mikolowski, Jon Hendricks, Ellen Phillips, Wendy Silverman, the estate of Gilbert and Lila Silverman, Lori Tucci, What Pipeline, The Alternative Press Records at the University of Michigan Library, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.  

Cary Loren is an artist and member of Destroy All Monsters. He is co-owner of Book Beat, an independent book shop in Oak Park, Michigan.

Back to Doom and Glory in the Cass Corridor: A Dossier on Cay Bahnmiller

Lead image, Cay Bahnmiller, Untitled (detail), 1989, oil on Bristol, 20 x 32 inches, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts.
Fig. 2, Cay Bahnmiller and Gordon Newton, summer 1992, courtesy What Pipeline, Detroit.

1. Tatyana Tolstaya, “The Square,” The New Yorker, published online June 12, 2015.
2. Elena Cué, “Interview with Frank Stella,” Alejandra de Argos, published online Nov. 6, 2017.

3. Beth Aviv, eulogy for Cay Bahnmiller, January 28, 2007: 
“She identified during her last years as a Jew.  She sprinkled her speech with yiddishisms, she called my David, Dovey with affection.  She wanted a Jewish funeral.  And she felt herself a victim and identified with jews who suffered the Holocaust.  Sometimes I thought she was there.  She knew and felt so poignantly.”
4. Cay Bahnmiller, note signed and dated inside artist’s book, June 13, 2006, Cay Bahnmiller archive, What Pipeline, Detroit.
5. Cay Bahnmiller, letter to Ken Mikolowski, Feb. 20, 2003, The Alternative Press Records, Special Collections Research Center, University of Michigan Library.

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