Alphabet Slop: Re-Straining the East Village Art Scene, 1981-1986
by Michael Carter
New Museum of Contemporary Art
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The locus of the New Museum's recent "East Village USA" exhibition -- the period and place generally regarded as the "'80s East Village Art" phenomenon -- actually encompassed as many as 20 or 30 "East Villages," various scenes and circles rotating through Venn diagrams of intersections, casual alliance, community action and internecine rivalry. Competing styles and artists' goals were as numerous and as varied as the epistemologies presumed to underlie them. (The artist Erik Parker perhaps gets this best in his quasi-satiric paintings of cultural, i.e. "colonic influence"; the churning of hundreds of stellar and barely-remembered names in the Lower East Side of somebody's gut.) The '80s East Village ("EV") was a condensed, 24-7 simmering pot of ambition and desperation (mixed with many drugs), instant gallerists and sometimes instant artists (as well as instant collectors, fueled by Wall Street funny money and the hype machine), superimposed upon a glut of suddenly available storefronts and a preexisting "alternative" culture dating back through the beat era to the draft riots of the 1960s, building upon the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock and/or hip-hop and a post-Warholian culture of decadent glitz, set in (and sometimes against) a neighborhood struggling for its very survival.
Curator Dan Cameron and the New Museum have given us a glimpse back at some 80 of the artists who rode the major waves of media hype which forged and distinguished the East Village art scene circa 1981-1986; viz., graffiti and street art, a group of artists generally associated with the Gracie Mansion Gallery, another with the Pat Hearn gallery, the "Neo-Geo"/neo-conceptualist crowd, the "AIDS-damaged claque," and the multimedia and performance artists who worked alongside and often with them. Nearly all of the works chosen are representative of these individual artists and of exemplary quality. That the artists chosen are mainly those who have gone on to greater subsequent success and fame is perhaps inevitable. Thus, the show is a compelling time-capsule, but a tightly edited one. Cameron himself notes that "the artistic richness of this era....an exhibition of this scale can only begin to consider." It can also make us consider why certain artists are chosen to represent this, or any other era, and to question otherwise accepted explanations of such a multifaceted scene's mappings and trajectories. The influence of gentrification is short-shrifted, though the indisputable ravages of AIDS upon the scene are duly underscored. Three shows congruent with "East Village USA" -- two organized by Rick Prol, "East Village ASU" at B-Side and "Vintage EV" at Hal Bromm (through April 29); and "Stencil and Spray Circa 1984" at The Proposition -- present alternative cross-sectionings and bring such questions to the fore.
Most reviews of "EV USA" have been an excuse to revel in and/or revise the past, and mine will be no different. In his New York magazine "preview," Gary Indiana laments the end of the scene as early as '81 (with the killing of a waiter by recently-freed Jack Henry Abbott at Binibon Restaurant). In his Village Voice article, Jerry Saltz looks back through the dark corridor of his '80s hallway on Ave. B to rue and reflect on the scene, generally accepting Cameron's historical trajectory. Others, like John Perrault in New York Arts}, seize the moment to proclaim "winners and losers," evincing a strong like for the polished deadpan of the "Neo-Geoists" and a distaste/distrust of the graffitists and of "street artists" generally, especially the still resonant and essential David Wojnarowicz. One's perspective on a scene as unwieldy and unruly as the EV ultimately depends on when, where and even why the flashpoints of personal interaction were strongest, as well as on personal taste.
My own involvement with what was quickly becoming a recognized and commodified EV art scene grew directly out of editing Redtape magazine, which itself grew out of dodging bullets and slurred syllables with various artists and writers at Life Café (then an old school Bohemian hangout rather than any kind of restaurant). Club 57 was the late night hang-out, mixing noisy art-damaged punks with visual and performance artists. I caught the tail end of the scene that nurtured Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Ann Magnuson and Klaus Nomi, among other notables. In my day, Ira Abramowitz, Carlo McCormick, Keiko Bonk, James Marshall, Julius Klein and others who would impact a "second wave" of EV art and music, kept the late-night fires burning. Gracie Mansion was curating shows in the building above and the graffiti-friendly 51X gallery opened next door, followed by Fun on nearby 10th Street. Civilian Warfare gallery -- which really launched the careers of Wojnarowicz, Greer Lankton, Judy Glantzman, Luis Frangella, Huck Snyder, Richard Hambleton, et al -- opened as Dean Savard's studio in a tiny storefront on my 11th Street block. ( I was living in a squatted city building, also populated by Club 57 alums and habitués [notably Ande Whyland, whose disarming clubworld and Wigstock photos are featured in "EV USA"]; Haring sometimes drew his radiant baby pictures in the window condensation in our only working, communal bathroom, only to have them evaporate with the dawn.) Soon Gracie opened a storefront on 10th near B, with Limbo Lounge sandwiched between it and Life. Without seeking anything more specific than excitement (maybe a cocktail), I was fully caught up in the churning whirl. In a few years, there were over 200 little galleries, many with no preexisting roots in the neighborhood's culture, some created by instant gallerists. A small gold rush, with its own boom and bust, ensued. Redtape picked and chose among EV artists, usually because of personal or ideological connections, sometimes creating them. Yet Redtape was also about preserving the confluence of this visual with the EV's then less-heralded '80s literary culture -- art and writing for and about the neighborhood (though not strictly delimited by it).
As everyone knows, the art and the neighborhood changed greatly over those six years; both became cleaner and more expensive. Not only were the original visionaries associated with the EV, like Basquiat and Haring, selling for five and six digits as the hype died, so were the so-called "Neo-Geo" or simulationist artists -- Peter Halley, Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach (who mainly showed at artist Meyer Vaisman's International With Monument gallery). Like the minimalists a decade before, these artists cloaked thmselves in the language of commodity critique with a nod and a wink to the art market, their "cool, cerebral" galleries all but collusive with the real estate interests, and shed few tears for the EV before encroaching on the golden-cobbled streets of SoHo, en route to Sotheby's and museums everywhere. Along the way, thousands of mostly young artists, sudden collectors and the merely curious were straining through the alphabetical colander, most living through and interacting with the social upheavals ongoing in the neighborhood. As much as AIDS -- and, in menacing tandem, the rising real estate costs -- changed not only what kinds of art were possible (and sought after), they altered their reception as well. When rising commercial rents, partly engendered by the galleries, reached levels that made SoHo more attractive, galleries and artists with no cultural stake in the neighborhood (and whose art reflected it increasingly less) naturally left. At least a hundred artists, however, retained (and retain) a foothold in the EV, and many were active in various actions concerning neighborhood issues, especially regarding the Tompkins Square Park riots in 1988, the subsequent tent encampments there, and the struggles of the squats, which raged into the mid-90s. That, of course, is not the purview of "EV
As for the show itself -- which, to its credit, charts some of the EV's major preludes, especially the Times Square show of 1980 and the Colab organization of artists that produced it -- some central figures of the EV art scene are given very short shrift or none at all, especially Hambleton, Prol and Mark Kostabi. I thought at the time (and still do) that Hambleton's successive series of street works, which predated both Haring's and SAMO, were equally momentous socially, historically and aesthetically, especially his ubiquitous and haunting "Shadows." Although an arresting "Shadow"-like figure on mirror is included in "EV
With some exceptions, artists who do not fall into Cameron's thematic boxes are noticeably absent from "EV
Actually, a great deal of these other artists -- as well as a more rounded depiction of what actually happened in the East Village gallery scene -- are noted in Cameron's fine catalog essay, supplemented by essays by Liza Kirwin and Alan W. Moore, which do much to flesh out the cultural, economic and political subtext of this art scene's rise and fall. With additional sidebars on individual artists by artists (Wojnarowicz by Penny Arcade, Sarah Schulman by Calvin Reid, Karen Finley by Lydia Lunch, etc.), the catalog itself is a valuable document to the culture of the EV generally. Moore's article charts the historical role of artists in the mechanics of gentrification, and also pays homage to the EV art scene's literary antecedents. "EV USA" posts scraps of the era -- handbills, pages of The East Village Eye, etc. -- to pay lip service to the wider cultural ferment (and hype), but neither the exhibit nor the catalog gives much play to the simultaneous literary scene documented in homegrown 'zines like Between C & D and Redtape, or the social and aesthetic influence of World War 3 Illustrated.
All gripes aside (and if the above reads like a yearbook, that's how it felt...in fact, such books exist, the East Village Guides of 1985 and '86, if you can find them), the New Museum show provides a glossy snapshot of a raucous moment in the recent history of the visual arts that is still mostly misunderstood. It gets many of the pieces right, yet skimps on context. It acknowledges graffiti and street art as the motivating force of the EV visual arts scene, even though these were really city-wide phenomena, with the graffiti/hip-hop scene originating mostly in the South Bronx. It is great to see these big works by Daze, and Crash, Lady Pink (collaborating with Jenny Holzer) and especially Lee Quinones, whose murals had great cautionary presence in the Lower East Side, but where is the "Gothic Panzerism" of Rammellzee, Toxic, and A-One, which I first saw at Club 57? What about the abstract precision of Phase 2, who showed at Ground Zero? The works by Haring and Scharf are representative and top-notch; the Basquiats are early ones from the his EV period, and it's to Cameron's credit the show isn't glutted by them. (Basquiat's full range can currently be viewed at the Brooklyn Museum's vibrant and informative retrospective.) The Times Square/Colab works, paintings by Jane Dickson, and Bobby G., and sculptures by Kiki Smith, Becky Howland and Tom Otterness, as well as a fine drawing by Joseph Nechvatal (along with contemporaries like Haring and Basquiat) demonstrate how trained artists interacted with street culture (literally, in the case of Pink and Holzer), and thereby seeded the burgeoning Lower East Side art scene. Despite excepting so many, the works of the heyday period (1983-1986), are compelling: David Sandlin's huge cartoony canvas of cracked Americana, Sue Coe's savagely strident collagic appropriations, a couple of signature Wojnarowiczs from early and later periods, Bidlo's appropriations of Warhol and Pollock, and the paintings by Stephen Lack, Philip Taaffe, George Condo, Luis Frangella, Ellen Berkenblit, Judy Glantzman, et al, as well as the disturbing visions of Jimmy DeSana and Greer Lankton (here represented by a rather tame if elegant gymnast sculpture), the cheeky evocations and word-plays of McDermott and McGough, and the humorous sculptural tableaux of Kiely Jenkins, a graffiti-damaged sculptor who showed at Fun. Martin Wong's painting "Attorney Street Handball Court 1982," inscribed with Miguel Pinero's entire poem of that name, extols a spiritual street reality which still emanates in pockets of the LES, though the East Village itself has changed almost beyond recognition (and both Pinero and Wong are long gone).
To better represent the era (and countenance the omitted), the second floor of the show is entirely given up to photo documentation by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Dona McAdams, Patrick McMullan, Tom Warren and Ande Whyland, which capture the fun, funk and finery of a non-stop, party-fueled EV art scene -- or more precisely, the many scenes (performance, gallery, clubland, fashionista, drag) that overlapped and comprised it. To this end, the video component of "EV USA" also provide some central documents of the era: Nelson Sullivan's look at the drag demimonde of the Pyramid Club and elsewhere; Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style, though semi-fictional, captures the gritty reality, spirited energy and some of the participants (notably star Lee Quinones) in the graffiti/rap/breakdancing underworld; Glenn O'Brien's TV Party features humanly stellar turns by early EV notables from the Club 57 and Mudd Club crowds (punk rockers like Blondie, Talking Heads, etc., and rising stars like Basquiat and Nomi); Richard Kern's video collaboration with Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch, Death Valley '69, is also featured, though his even more nightmarish work with Wojnarowicz, "You Killed Me First" (filmed in conjunction with an installation at Ground Zero gallery), is not. Thus Kern's is the only contribution of the EV's homespun film movement, the Cinema of Transgression, notably omitting works by Nick Zedd, among others. Performance documents of such club/performance luminaries as Karen Finley, Ethyl Eichelberger, John Kelly, Ann Magnuson, Fiona Templeton and others, round out the video presentations. Again, there are significant omissions, including the No Se No and ABC No Rio performers (technically Lower East Side, though almost all of them also performed above Houston Street).
As stated, Cameron acknowledges that "EV USA" itself is a cross-section, the very large tip of a mammoth iceberg, which the contemporary art machine may well wish to remain adrift, yet which will doubtless be dredged up and reexamined by future historians and curators. Now that the East Village has been turned from a Bohemian enclave within an ethnic neighborhood into a kind of Bohemian theme park with inflated prices (in this sense, the simulationists were right after all...), the EV art scene of the '80s will probably remain an aesthetic high water mark for some time to come.
The three shows concurrent with the New Museum exhibit offer additional perspective, and put back in some of what "EV USA" leaves out. "EV ASU" is Prol's direct response to "EV USA," and presents a combination of small works by artists in the NM show (Bidlo, Daze, Haring, Wojnarowicz, Wong, Lack, Jenkins, Walter Robinson and others), as well as some left out (Kostabi, Prol, Roman, Bonk, Kaz, Lori Taschler, Rick Collichio, Andrew Castrucci, Stefan Eins, Louis Renzoni, Ronnie Cutrone), and other artists currently working in the EV or its traditions (Amy Hill, Michael Ricardo Andreev, Brigitte Engler, Aaron Olshan, et al). In the "authentic" B-Side Gallery space on 6th and B, "EV ASU"'s micro-salon style not only captures the old EV spirit, but testifies to the resilient vitality of artists who continue to work and show in the neighborhood. "Vintage EV" at Bromm's larger space in Tribeca, is a more ambitious salon style affair, with works consonant in quality with "EV USA," by most of the included artists and many of the aforementioned omissions, including Prol, Cyphers, Kostabi, Bonk, Renzoni, et al. "Stencil and Spray Circa 1984: Then and Now" at The Proposition, directly across from the NM show, was actually a composite of two mid-80s stencil/street art shows, the "Hit and Run" show at Magic Gallery (a large group exhibit curated by Romberger and Van Cook) and "Stencil and Spray" at EM Donahue (a two-man show featuring street stencils by Roman and Romberger). Crowded into the hurried nook of the back gallery, the Proposition show was indeed a condensed time-capsule, with signature works of the era by Bonk, Cyphers, Prol, Roman, Romberger, Robinson, Van Cook, Van Dalen, as well as Jim C. and Ed Brezinski (who ran the Magic Gallery in their studio loft), alongside more recent works by the same artists.
Seeded by graffiti and the street-oriented success of Haring and Basquiat, the "street/stencil" artists (to which I would add Hambleton, Wojnarowicz, Kohlhofer, Borofsky, Tobocman, among others) best conveyed the explosive energy of the period and place, often with politically charged wit and nuance, eliding the space between the gallerygoer and public curiosity. (Most of these artists employed "street/stencil" as only one of many means; some, like Wojnarowicz, came close to the kind of multimedia "integralism" championed by early artist/critic Nicholas Mouffarege, which he thought best characterized the art of the EV.) While street art has burgeoned internationally and continues to morph, even via digital media, the stencil art of the '80s EV looks like remnants from another era, another New York, whose aesthetic vibrancy, idealistic freedom and bonhomie have all but been lost in the current climate of neo-conformism and the constant onslaught of gentrification and development. But then, that was our youth. These fragments we have shored against our ruins, to quote the quintessential poet of decay.