Artists’ double suicide casts a pall at St. Mark’s


By Lincoln Anderson

While the international art world was rocked by the double suicide of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan last month, the tragedy has hit home especially hard for the community at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, where the two had been living since earlier this year.

In February, the transplanted Los Angeles couple moved into the third floor of the St. Mark’s rectory on E. 11th St. off of Second Ave. They befriended Father Frank Morales, the church’s associate pastor, and started attending services at St. Mark’s.

Blake, 35, was a rising star in motion painting, a hybrid of painting and digital imagery. His highly acclaimed “Winchester” video trilogy, which showed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2005, focused on the bizarre mansion of rifle company heiress Sarah Winchester.

Duncan, 40, was a film director and former video-game designer.

On July 10, Duncan committed suicide in the rectory, and, according to reports, Blake found her body. Blake was then reported missing July 17 and his clothes and wallet were found on a Rockaway beach. His body washed up off New Jersey July 22, and was identified by dental records.

Duncan OD’d on sleeping pills in the late afternoon after lunching earlier with Blake. Morales said neither showed signs of depression or substance abuse.

“There was absolutely no drugs involved, in terms of their being drug addicted,” he said. “I know that quite well.”

Blake and Duncan were together 12 years and inseparable, according to Morales.

“They were never apart for even a night,” he said. Morales had become close to them and their deaths devastated him. One day last week, he passed out.

“I was with some friends and I keeled over,” he said. “I wound up at Beth Israel.” Morales was told he was dehydrated, which made sense, he said, since he’d been “sobbing a lot.” He went Upstate for a few days to recuperate.

Morales said he still can’t fathom why Duncan killed herself. Some have speculated recent setbacks on a couple of her films — while Blake was poised for a breakthrough — may have been the fateful trigger. Others say she was “paranoid,” or that both were.

Morales described her as “combative, sunny, bright.”

“She was very politically astute,” he said. “She was very aware — of the war and the bloodletting. Her blog before she died was ‘The Devil and Dick Cheney.’ … She was prone occasionally to feelings of paranoia. I was completely shocked that she took her life. This was a really brilliant, beautiful, powerful woman.”

Blake liked to say Duncan was too intelligent for Hollywood, where she was “surrounded by morons,” Morales recalled.

Blake’s taking his own life is perhaps more understandable, he said.

“They were so tight,” Morales recalled. “One can imagine that, for whatever reason, he believed he couldn’t go on without her. She helped with the business [side of his art]. She was his muse. … The very next day was her funeral. He may not have been able to face that.”

Morales said he saw Xeroxed copies of notes both left, in which Blake and Duncan each expressed love for the other.

The two formed a special bond with Morales, who is also known for his expertise on “police state” issues.

“I think they found it interesting that I was a priest,” he said. “They kind of adopted me. We ran around together.”

With the Guggenheim’s Bronwyn Keenan, Blake and Duncan organized a July 3 benefit for St. Mark’s that raised $12,000.

“They were central in supporting the church and its efforts,” Morales said. “They set [the benefit] in motion.”

Said James Benn, St. Mark’s administrator, “He was this well-known artist and his career was about to explode. She was very interested in changing the world. They were activists — and that’s why they vibed so well with St. Mark’s.” The couple were living in the rectory — traditionally the home of the church’s head reverend — because the cash-strapped church, for financial reasons, has made the decision to rent it.

Clayton Patterson, who owns an Essex St. gallery, said that art-world big wheels like Blake and Duncan relocating to the East Village shows how much the neighborhood has changed.

“It was shocking to me that people who were so career oriented came to the Lower East Side,” he said. “People always tried to escape the Lower East Side — Madonna, Ginsberg, they all made it elsewhere. The Lower East Side has always been about struggle. It’s now a careerist neighborhood.”

Said Morales, “From what I understood, they just grew tired of the cutthroat scene in L.A.”

According to reports, Blake and Duncan may have feared they were being harassed and followed by Scientologists. But Morales said their anxieties probably extended beyond that, and justifiably so.

“What everyone is missing,” he said, “these people hated Bush. They hated what is going on in the world. They were very political. They were very perceptive. That’s the way to situate their paranoia — I think the rest of us may have something to worry about, as well.”