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As Long As You’re Stuck in Your Apartment, Give Yourself a Story to Live

Artist Peter McGough has always insisted on living as if he’s in another era.

Peter McGough and his dog, Queenie. Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson
Peter McGough and his dog, Queenie. Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson

“I don’t mind being alone. I like it,” says artist Peter McGough from his West Village apartment, where he is quarantined along with his dog, Queenie. “I have my books. I have all sorts of things to keep me occupied.”

This past fall, he published a memoir, I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going: The Art Scene and Downtown New York in the 1980s, mostly about his years making art — constructing and then dogmatically living in an entirely Victorian-style world — with David McDermott, his onetime lover and art-making partner. The two dressed as if they were in a period film — top hats, detachable collars — and even puttered around the city in a Model T. Their work appeared in three Whitney Biennials and was exhibited by Cheim & Read in New York, Galerie Jerome de Noirmont in Paris, and Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, and they made the covers of Artforum and Art in America. All the while, they lived in an extraordinary manner, whether it was in their 1840s townhouse on Avenue C, lit by candles and heated with wood-burning stoves, or in the 1865 Kings County Savings Bank at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, or in their 1790 house in the Catskills. It was all grand in a Miss Havisham kind of way. “Even when we lived in a hovel,” McGough says, “we’d get a can of paint and paint it. I found 18th-century furniture in the garbage! I found velvet chairs from the ’40s. People threw out so many good things.” Nonetheless, they made a great deal of money, overspent lavishly, then lost much of what was left to back taxes. McDermott moved to Ireland. McGough joined him for a spell, then returned.

He moved to this apartment three years ago from a 1930s building on Christopher Street. His friend Fernando Santangelo, the interior designer, had been living here (“It was all white, and it was sparsely furnished with beautiful things,” McGough says), and when Santangelo moved out, McGough moved in. It’s the only apartment in the building that hasn’t been gutted and modernized; if it had been, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Like many people who lived through the AIDS crisis, McGough looks on the current pandemic from the experience of that perspective — and with grace. Years back, he’d carry “a little blue glass bottle with a cork in it like the size for your palm, and it had vodka in it because that’s a hand sanitizer. I’m not a drinker, but I used it to sanitize my hands. You know, I almost died five times in my life. So I was prepared for it.”

Besides, “this apartment to me is like a living sculpture. I think of it as an art piece. It’s an environment, a whole attitude like it’s the 1930s but I’ve been here since the ’20s. The building is from 1905, and I have this little story in my head of how I have lived here; that’s my fantasy that keeps me going. I am not one of those people who like the minimalist block of wood as a coffee table.”

A view of the full run of the apartment, looking from the living room, through his office (demarcated by the original pocket doors), to the kitchen at the far end. The phone “has a dial tone. I bought it, I don’t know, years ago. They had a shop of just telephones.” Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson
The settee on the left is from John Derian. For a show, McGough had the phallus-legged console made, based on a table he saw in Catherine the Great’s collection. “I thought, Well, no one is going to buy it anyway, so this is going to go right in the front room.” McGough found the taxidermy puffin in the upper left corner in a shop in Iceland when visiting there for a show. “I bought that [chandelier] in Venice in a shop that only sold chandeliers and put flicker bulbs in it.” Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson/Stephen Johnson
The green daybed is from his friend Mary Mulcahy, who owns the textile company Les Indiennes. “She gave that to me, and all the pillows on the sofas are her fabrics,” he says. Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson
“I bought those hangings at the flea market. I’d only seen things like that in 1940s movies, and the curtains behind them I had made.” McGough makes his bed every morning, “because if I’ve had the worst day and my bed looks nice, I think, All right, I can calm down.Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson
He’s had the maid’s uniform, right, since the ’80s, “when McDermott and I had our studio in the Kings County Savings Bank in Williamsburg. We had all these uniforms and we’d give parties and we’d have the people wear them.” Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson
He bought the 18th-century desk at a church sale on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street. The gold chair is from a friend who, when she was moving from her apartment next to the Ear Inn, had posted, “ ‘I’m giving things away,’ so I went down and said, ‘Whaddya got?’ ” The classical heads on the right wall are from a series of photographs he did for a show in 1990 at the Robert Miller Gallery. His grandfather was a “Sunday painter, and this was one of his paintings [on top left wall].” Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson
“I was in Genoa and I was walking around that magnificent city, a court town, and there was a ribbon shop, and they had that ribbon, so inexpensive,” says McGough. “It was a beautiful shop with tassels and ribbons, all natural fabrics, not like the cheap stuff they sell in the garment district, and then I put all those pictures I collected of young men from the turn of the century, and then I had this fake money from a film I had made, so I just stuck it in there.” Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson

*A version of this article appears in the March 16, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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If You’re Stuck at Home, Give Yourself a Story to Live