Late Observations on "The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984"

Jim Feast

Late Observations on "The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984" at the Grey Art Gallery, January-April 2006


DOWNTOWN: The New York Art Scene 1974 - 1984

The Grey Art Gallery and The Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University

curated by Carlo McCormick

through April 1, 2006


I want to look back for a moment at the "Downtown Show" that took place earlier this year and which focused on the New York hipster art scene from 1974 to 1984. The accompanying material and the organization of the show made a big point of the fact that the artists of the time played fast and loose with the boundaries between the styles  of high and popular art. However, something of much greater importance was another type of violation of this border to which the show alluded.

From the angle of this second distinction, the highlight of the show was the section "The Mock Shop," which according to the catalog, centered on how "Downtown artists sought to circumvent commercial galleries with new modes of artistic production and distribution." This went so far as "Vendart, whose creators adapted commercial vending machines to sell inexpensive artworks."

Truth is, these few sentences are much more subversive than they might appear on the surface. It is one thing to set up alternative museums and galleries like the ones that appeared in the East Village in the 1970s. Ultimately, such a development might displace the geographic center of the New York art scene, as has been happening with the relocation of many important galleries to West Chelsea. But this entails no more than a geographic shift while the same power networks that control the art world remain intact.

However, selling art from a vending machine is a much more subversive departure from the norm. Envision one of those snack machines with a transparent glass front where the choices are arrayed in rows and drop down to a bottom trough when selected for purchase where they are scooped up by the consumer. Now imagine that nestled among the Oreos, Sun Chips, raisins and Snickers, there are also to be found small David Smith sculptures. Basquiat postcards, Otomo pencil sketches, Shalom figurines and Richard Brown Lethem miniatures. This, then, is the violation I am talking about. Instead of stylistically mixing high and low art, in this case, what is mixed is the merchandising of fine art and mass market products.

The Downtown artists of that day were making a statement. At that moment, they said, the only thing that distinguished art and vulgar, commercial trash was how it was sold.  Ask yourself, "Isn't such an assertion much more radical than, say, nailing a urinal to the wall of a high-end gallery?"

Let's look at a couple of the pieces of the show to deepen this insight. In "The Trip to Paris Sweepstakes" by Mike Hand ***which had been put on at the Gracie Mansion gallery, 100 numbered, near identical small canvases showing a plane flying by or through the Eiffel Tower were each sold for $108.25. This was not your typical numbered edition, however. The numbers were also lottery tickets, entitling the winner to a free trip to France.

Here art was aping a common feature of American marketing, which is to tie a giveaway (or possible giveaway) to a purchase, in tacit acknowledgment that what is being sold is not attractive enough to collect buyers on its own and needs an unrelated supplement to move it off the floor.

Also featured in this section of the show was an untitled display stand by Tom Otterness. Looking something like a reduced-size Tower of Babel, it has tiny platforms on which are displayed toy figure boxers and athletes. The stand dwarfs the art in keeping with another American merchandising truism, namely, that packaging will sell an item before quality.

These and other works on display in the "Mock Shop" have the durable power of a double-edged statement. On the one hand, they give the lie to all the fine arts reviews and New York Times  pieces that would suggest fine art exists in an empyrean realm, high above the crass buying, selling and horse trading that goes on in the marketplace. On the other hand, beyond this debasement of the aesthetic and the humor and panache of these artists who satirize the selling game as it is now played, I think we can find shining through the revolutionary dream: Imagine that instead of finding itself quarantined in museums and chi-chi galleries, art was readily available to everyone so that it could lay its luminescent, radioactive trail through every nook and alley of our labyrinthine society?