Why’d they do it?

Times Staff Writer

It’s been just eight days since rising art star Jeremy Blake was seen wandering into the ocean off New York’s Rockaway Beach -- presumably to his death -- a week after he discovered that his blogger-filmmaker girlfriend, Theresa Duncan, had taken her life in their East Village apartment.

But the apparent double suicide of this glamorous, intellectual couple has confounded and disturbed the art world in New York, London and Los Angeles, where they lived together for several years. Many were shocked by the turn of events while others noted that the couple had acted strangely in their final months together.

According to several friends and art world peers, the two believed they were being stalked and harassed by Scientologists, an abiding fear that soured old friendships and made some of their respective working relationships difficult.


Christine Nichols, a colleague and friend of Blake’s since 1998, produced two art exhibitions, two books and a record in conjunction with the artist through the New York art gallery she co-founded, Works on Paper Inc. Nichols dates the couple’s rising sense of “paranoia” to around 2004, two years after Blake created an album cover for alternative-rock star Beck, who is a practicing Scientologist.

“They thought Scientologists were really harassing them,” Nichols said. “They would say, ‘They are following us, harassing our landlord.’ I did not see any evidence of that.

“But it got to be something that was huge to them -- a ‘You’re either with us or against us’ thing where if you didn’t believe them, you weren’t on their side. The story they had woven in paranoia and conspiracies took over part of their lives. A lot of us couldn’t understand that acting out.”

Two other art world sources corroborated Nichols’ characterization but declined to speak on the record out of concern that Blake may still be alive.

Beck was unavailable for comment, but his manager, through a publicist, let it be known that things were “extremely cordial” between the singer and the artist the last time they talked three years ago.A spokesman said the New York Police Department was not investigating any involvement by the Church of Scientology. Karin Pouw, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, denied the allegations, saying, “Never heard of these people. This is completely untrue.”

Puzzling turn of events

Duncan and Blake, who were together for 12 years, are recalled as an impossibly good-looking, intellectually vigorous and socially popular pair of soul mates who moved gracefully among a set of likewise brainy, moneyed people who occupy the intersection of art and technology on both coasts.

According to Lance Kinz, director of Kinz, Tillou and Feigen gallery in New York, which shows Blake’s digital paintings and films, Duncan’s suicide and Blake’s disappearance have confounded many people.

“They were both highly ambitious and successful and had achieved a lot. They were energetic in their creative pursuits,” Kinz said. “The biggest surprise is that Jeremy would sacrifice what he had worked so hard to achieve and had been so excited about.

“On the other hand, for those who did know Jeremy and Theresa, they were very close, seemingly very much in love and extremely close. One could assume the loss was too much to handle.”

The couple had moved in February from Los Angeles back to New York, where Blake had accepted a job as an in-house graphic designer for video game manufacturer Rockstar Games. A source at Rockstar, who declined to be identified for fear of violating company policy, recalled the artist as someone who “looked like a rock star. He wore sunglasses indoors. Sometimes he sipped whiskey at work.”

On July 10, the day she was found dead, Duncan, 40, posted a final blog entry, a two-sentence quotation from author Reynolds Price: “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens -- second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.”

Blake, 35, was well on his way to bona fide star status with museums including Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collecting his work. Blake took part in three consecutive Whitney Biennial exhibitions from 2000 to 2004.

“He was a pioneer in so many ways,” Kinz said. “His works weren’t film and they weren’t paintings. It wasn’t computer art; it wasn’t animation. And though it was painterly fine art, it was a hybrid of many things. In the future, I think he’ll be considered a first explorer in a new territory of art making.”

A Washington, D.C., native, Blake had turned recently to an abstract form of portraiture, doing a piece on Ossie Clarke, a fashion designer from 1960s “swinging London” who is never seen, but readings from his diaries form the soundtrack. Another piece, “Sodium Fox,” interprets Nashville poet and rocker David Berman of the band Silver Jews. They had been chosen for an upcoming exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, along with a new piece, “Glitterbest,” about London punk rock mogul Malcolm McLaren, that remains unfinished.

Katie Brennan, who operates Sister Gallery in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, frequently socialized with Blake and Duncan and mounted an exhibition of Blake’s work in 2004. Brennan said the couple mutually inspired one another in their creative pursuits.

“They were very happy together and extremely supportive,” Brennan said. “I don’t think anyone can interpret what happened. It’s a great loss. It tends to happen in the art world more than other areas. It’s tragic. They were brilliant, complex people. I think everyone is shocked.”

CD-ROM creator

Blake and Duncan met in the mid-1990s, according to a 1998 USA Today feature about her work as one of the few writer-producers creating CD-ROM games geared toward girls. A reviewer for Entertainment Weekly described “Chop Suey,” Duncan’s 1994 adventure CD-ROM, as an “unsettlingly brilliant” work that was “a little like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as performed by the B-52’s for NPR.”

Duncan, 40, the daughter of an art teacher, grew up near Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan after writing a thesis titled “Electric Fairy Tales: CD-ROMs and Literature.” Romance bloomed when Blake began creating art for Duncan’s independently produced discs, and the two collaborated with artist Karen Kilimnik on “A History of Glamour,” a short animated “mockumentary” about a girl from the Midwest who becomes the sensation of a Warhol-like big-city art scene, then sours on the glittery life.

Blake and Duncan moved together from New York to Los Angeles for what they expected to be a brief stay while the artist worked on the abstract film sequences for “Punch-Drunk Love,” director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 giddy romantic comedy.

Duncan had sold a script called “Alice Underground” to Fox Searchlight, about two teenage girls whose kidnapping of a rock star boosts his fame, Variety reported in 2001. In 2005, she began a blog called The Wit of the Staircase that quickly became a must-read among literary-minded Angeleno web logs.

“The thing that stands out most is the depth and breadth of her interests,” said Jim Ruland, a fiction writer behind the lit-blog and reading series Vermin on the Mount, in an e-mail. “I solicited her for a response to Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘Against the Day’ and her response was very smart yet felt extremely personal. Her blog was full of that kind of writing: oddly moving prose on a wide range of subjects.”

Duncan’s reputation as an intellectual firebrand sometimes belied her appearance. “I don’t know how glamorous she was; she was pretty, she was sexy,” said Kevin Roderick, editor of the media blog LA Observed. “She did put a lot of herself on her blog.”

New York police Tuesday said there was no new information on the case. They were alerted late on July 17 by a woman who witnessed the 6-foot-2 Blake walk into the ocean. He was not seen coming out. His clothing, wallet and a suicide note were found under a nearby boardwalk, police said.


Times staff writers Mike Boehm and Amy Kaufman contributed to this article.