On Walking through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller

17 April 2023

By Madeline Bogoch

Cookie Mueller holds the niche title of it girl’s it girl—which may be partially attributed to  remaining just obscure enough to fly under the radar of mainstream recognition. A recent reissue of her collected writing, Walking through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, has reignited interest in the always multi-hyphenated Mueller, and ensured that her legacy continues, several decades after her death of an AIDS-related illness in 1989. The expanded text, originally published by Semiotext(e) in 1990, features a range of Mueller’s oeuvre as an art writer, essayist, fabulist, and advice columnist, alongside a new introduction by author Olivia Laing.

The works appear chronologically, covering the late 1960s up until the last years of Mueller’s life in the late 1980s. We follow along as Mueller bounces between Baltimore, Provincetown, Italy, Jamaica, British Columbia, New Orleans, and finally to New York, where she more-or-less settles. Early entries cover Mueller’s time among John Waters’ eccentric flock of collaborators in their mutual hometown of Baltimore. Mueller is probably most widely known for her performances in Waters’ films, but the anthology also covers the numerous lives she lived post-acting career, including as a writer, exotic dancer, single parent, playwright, clothing designer, and devoted friend to many. Mueller’s legacy is especially luminous in the art sphere, and I’d wager that this is not solely on account of her writing—which does carry an idiosyncratic charm, seamlessly translating the unique way she moves through the world—but also her capacity to orchestrate a scene of like-minded, glamourous misfits. One of her closest friends was photographer Nan Goldin, who frequently featured Mueller in her candid portraiture. The image on the cover of Walking through Clear Water…  was taken by Goldin and shows Cookie at a party—in heavy eye makeup, grinning, and completely in her element.

As a writer, Mueller’s style is immediate and frank. Much of Walking through Clear Water… recalls her escapades as an uninhibited scenester who happened to “stumble onto wildness.”1 In an entry titled “Haight Ashbury San Francisco 1967,” Mueller takes the reader on a dizzying ride through a day that includes a run-in with the Manson Family, an LSD trip, and an assault at gunpoint. This assault, as well as other similarly perilous anecdotes, are nevertheless shrugged off by the writer. Her breeziness might otherwise seem anticlimactic, but Mueller never slows down long enough for the gravity of any given situation to sink in—whether in life or on the page. You get the sense that her ability to greet trauma with nonchalance is a survival strategy, and one that probably served her well.

In her introduction, Laing observes that Mueller’s approach to life and art is “not the dominant style right now, which… makes it all the more enjoyable.”2 Mueller’s unfiltered cadence is indeed at odds with the cautious and calculated discourse of the art world, and it’s hard to imagine how she would (or wouldn’t) fit into the contemporary climate. In the semi-sincere column she wrote for the East Village Eye, “Ask Dr. Mueller, Cookie offers egregiously unreliable medical advice amidst the spiralling AIDS crisis, with an inclination towards New Age remedies. These moments make for jarring contemporary encounters on the heels of COVID-19, when medical misinformation has been weaponized by the political right. But Mueller writes from a very different vantage point, as her social milieu was hit hard by AIDS—including herself and her partner. Given the indifference demonstrated by the government and much of the country during this time, you can see how one might have retreated to their hippie roots in search of hope. At other points, it’s clear how Mueller’s high ceiling for chaos facilitates the conditions for kindness that a better sense of self-preservation might otherwise prohibit. In an early entry, “No Credit, Cash Only—Baltimore 1967,” Mueller recalls a time working debt collections at a department store with a bigoted boss. On a whim, she decides to destroy the paper trail of debts and one by one calls customers to let them know they’re free and clear. Mueller exits the job in a glorious blaze of compassion; she’s left elated, jobless, and unconcerned about her own fraught financial situation.

Even though many of the texts were written during a time of loss and sadness, Mueller’s tone remains easygoing and tinged with warmth. Her philosophy on maintaining a sense of humour in terrible times feels especially resonant today. In a column written in 1986, at the peak of the AIDS crisis, Cookie affirms that humour “is the more logical path towards levity.”3 After a very tense few years, I’ve noticed the cautious re-emergence of irony into culture, but I think it’s important to take a page from Mueller and insist that humour is not a luxury reserved for carefree days. In her own, characteristically non-committal words, “while nuclear meltdowns are scaring everybody, while catastrophes and plagues are reducing us to base humans…we have to relax and hang onto a sense of humor…I guess.”4

Mueller’s writing is often described as unpretentious, given her penchant for first-person narrative in plain language. This is perhaps most notable in her art writing, a genre known for its inclination towards the exact opposite. Mueller worked as an art critic for Details in the 1980s, writing about the Manhattan art scene with the same on-the-go cadence she brought to her texts on hitchhiking and buying heroin. I find her strength as an art writer lies not just in her proximity or taste (both of which are legendary) but in her capacity to see past the bullshit. She never hides behind impenetrable prose, instead embracing a straightforward style—a true asset in a field where few say what they mean. In university, I purchased a ubiquitous guide to art writing which, at the outset, claims that fear rather than haughtiness (as is often assumed) is the root of most bad art writing. I tend to agree. Cookie, meanwhile, wrote the way she lived: fearlessly.

  1. Cookie Mueller, Walking through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, 97.
  2. Olivia Laing, introduction, 10.
  3. Mueller, 376.
  4. Mueller, 370.

Walking through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller, Edited by Hedi El Kholti, Chris Kraus, and Amy Scholder (Semiotext(e), 2022) is available through MIT Press.

Feature Image: Cover of Walking through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller. Photo by Nan Goldin, courtesy of MIT Press and Semiotext(e).