Downtown: Legend, Myth and Institutionalized Caprice
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
Up To and Including Her Limits, 1976
Film transferred to DVD
29 minutes, color, sound
Courtesy the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix
The Downtown Collection, an amalgam of archives in NYU's Fales Library provided the initial impetus for The Downtown Show, curated by Carlo McCormick, currently on view at both the Fales and NYU's Grey Art Gallery, and its companion publication, "The Downtown Book". Less an art show in the traditional sense than a barrage of ephemera, periodicals, manuscripts and artifacts, richly supplemented -- for the most part -- by exemplary paintings and sculptural objects, and rarely seen early works by well-known artists and writers, as well as a glut of musical and performance/video documentation. The Downtown Show should be applauded for attempting to situate creative activity from 1974-1984 in an interdisciplinary framework, where developments in diverse media had profound impacts upon one another, and were often the product of the same artists. New York punk rock, especially, is shown as both a product of, and a galvanizing force for, this vibrant and important period of cultural ferment. Though the NYU shows both trace a wider trajectory and includes a spate of figures excluded from last years' New Museum "East Village USA", its conflation of the downtown avant garde generally with artists whose concerns were more peculiar to the East Village and/or Lower East Side is confusing and sometimes troubling. What's missing is a sociopolitical context for understanding the shift of creative energy that culminated in the East Village Art scene and its scruffier cousins in the Lower East Side, as well as some of the key individuals, spaces and periodicals that kept the creative stew boiling. (Ironically, a somewhat misguidedly-titled satellite show, "From Anarchy to Affluence" at Parsons, includes some key items NYU's extravaganza leaves out.)
The exhibition is broken into multiple parts in the two spaces. The works at The Grey attempt to elide strict chronology, focusing on themes or motifs which the curators believe united various "downtown" artists, a strategy which sometimes yields new insights and novel associations, yet in the end obfuscates and distorts the historical record, and minimizes any claim for social and political cohesion on the part of various artist's groups (the chief exception perhaps being Colab). A few of these categories, retain a certain coherency concept-wise: "Broken Stories" (mostly when it focuses on the literary). "The Mock Shop" (especially as a synechdoche of Colab artists and practices), "Body Politics"" (focusing on gender/transgressive imaging of the body in performance and photography.) Others feel more dubious: "Sublime Time" (artists for whom temporality was a major issue in their work); "Salon de Refuse" (the appropriation of trash and other lowly materials); "De-Signs" (artists appropriating the written and visual language of the media for their own needs) and the "Portrait Gallery", works by mostly celebrated photographers capturing the personalities who created the "downtown scene".
Flyer for Richard Hell and the Voidoids,
(A true rogues' gallery including likenesses of Philip Glass by Chuck Close; Robin Winters by John Ahearn; Wojnarowicz and Candy darling on her deathbed by Peter Hujar, Cookie Mueller by Nan Goldin; Richard Hell, Legs McNeil and Andy Warhol, by Roberta Bailey; Holly Solomon and Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe, etc… the famous and the fabulous; the quick and the dead, and a few slowpokes.) Again, what's spurious here are not so much the categories themselves, as some of the choices and associations made -- and unmade.
As gleaned from works strewn amidst these segments, the story of "Downtown" begins with often visionary pioneers, mainly in SoHo, circa 1974-75, and includes such -key artworld figures as Vito Acconci, Jonathan Borofsky, Gordon Matta-Clark, Ray Johnson, Joan Jonas, Sol Lewitt, Charlemagne Palestine, Carolee Schneeman, Robert Smithson, William Wegman, and Robert Wilson, as well as painters like and Ida Applebroog, , Chuck Close, Jack Goldstein, Leon Golub, Ron Gorchov, Duncan Hannah, Lucio Pozzi, Nancy Spero and John Torreano (though not Elizabeth Murray, then concurrently uber-exposed at MOMA); and sculptors such as Lynda Benglis, Scott Burton and Robert Gober. These artists mainly came from a conceptualist, political or performative bias, reacting to the predominant minimalism of the early 70's. Featured in one of the gallery's vitrines, Avalanche Magazine, edited by Liza Bear and Willoughby Sharp, documented and celebrated these artists, as well as early East Village iconoclasts like Jack Smith. Many were also responsible for what the curator calls "Interventions', or the mapping of an art/conceptual context onto the raw matter of the city, then internationally distinguished for its blight and neglect. The NYU show does a fine job of documenting these events and strategies underlying them, which culminated in 1980's Times Square Show, the fateful Real Estate Show, and "Illegal America" at Franklin Furnace. It also includes as "Interventions": Adam Purple's circular garden on Forsyth Street, Justen Ladda's "Book Burnings," site-specific signage by John Fekner and Don Leight, a crowbar by Stefan Eins, postcards by Adrian Piper, and many stills from David Wojnarowicz's early (1979) self-documenting performance, "Rimbaud in New York."
Rhoplex on canvas
#96 x 72 in.
Courtesy the artist
Around this time also began the rumblings of what would become the Neo-expressionist juggernaut of the '80s, with painters like Julian Schnabel, (though Schnabel's painting in the show dates from 1974), Basquiat, David Salle, Susan Rothenberg, et al. coming onto the downtown scene, later joined by the SUNY Buffalo/Metro Pictures brigade of Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Robert Longo and composer Glenn Branca. This last crew is generously represented here, especially by Longo's huge drawing of a contorted male figure from the Men In the Cities series, which holds up amazingly well. These artists, along with writers like Walter Abish, Kathy Acker, Constance de Jong, Gary Indiana, Richard Kostelanetz, multimedia/performance artists like Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, and dramatists such as Richard Foreman, the Ohio Theatre, Squat Theatre and Liz LeCompte's Wooster Group, formed the core of what would become the new Downtown (mainly SoHo) avant garde. The focus was expanding by exploding the narrative, whether the media was paint, sculpture, theatre or sound. Many of these works are in the "Broken Stories" section, which also features several artists whose work involved a recontextualization of highly politically charged issues, as seen in Tim Rollins and the Kids of the South Bronx ("Absalom, Absalom"), Sherrie Levine's appropriations of Egon Schiele, Sue Coe's "Reagan Speaks for Himself", Golub's "Henry Kissinger" and Martha Rosler's Bowery video project.
In the mid to late '70s, though, it still made sense to speak of a "downtown scene"; the artists were spread out far and wide below 14th Street. (Some in fact geographically above, yet nonetheless bespoke "the downtown vibe". Semiotexte -- especially the Schizoculture" issue -- though published, at Columbia University, was a case in point.) More ethnically diverse (predominantly Latino), the areas east and to the north of SoHo, had their own traditions of multicultural Bohemianism, via the Beats, Black Arts Movement and what would become the Nuyorican poetry movement. And while these movements (as later did graffiti) would greatly impact the SoHo scene, their particular resonances were mostly strongly felt in the vast No Man's Land known as the Lower East Side. (The Grey Art Show does feature a couple of manuscripts by the Nuyorican's most famous voice, Miguel Pinero, but nothing from Miguel Algarin, Jessica Hagedorn, Bimbo Rivas, Pedro Pietri, Sandra Maria Esteves, Victor Hernandez Cruz, et al; nor does it document the legacy of the "Umbra" Magazine writers and artists, who continued through the '70s to refract Afro-American aesthetic sensibility on the Lower East; Steve Cannon and David Henderson among them. To its credit, "Downtown" does include an early work by David Hammons, "Elephant Dung Sculpture" (which predated Chris Ofili's Guiliani-censored use of the same material by more than 20 years). Yet it also largely fails to document contributions by poets associated with the Poetry Project like Bernadette Mayer, Eileen Myles, Bob Holman and Tom Savage, and E.vil mavericks like poet Ted Berrigan and writer/artist Yuri Kapralov, whose "Once There Was A Village" is still the best record of the neighborhood during its most neglected and harrowing era. Neither is there any acknowledgement of the Life Café-Neither/Nor art/music/poetry scene which flourished in the early '80s.)
Yo Women! Wanted, 1982
Flyer for a women's dance party at Club 57, Photocopy
#11 x 8 ½ in. (27.9 x 21.6 cm)
April Palmieri Papers, Fales Library, New York University
The mid-Seventies, however, also gave rise to another "downtown" movement, with roots in the SoHo avant-garde and the druggy yet poetical squalor of the Lower East Side, whose impact would be felt not just in downtown or in New York but worldwide: Punk Rock. On the Bowery corridor that ran between Soho and the East Village, CBGB's became the major downtown locus for artistic energies (writing, visual arts, filmmaking) of all kind, and the one thing that the Downtown Show gets very right is to showcase the enormous impact the early CB's scene (as well as the No Wave Scene which followed) had on downtown aesthetics in the late '70s and early '80s. The Grey Art exhibition gives us a veritable glut of artworks and artifacts by the scene's leading avatars: Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Ramones, Alan Vega, Tom Verlaine, Talking Heads, Blondie and the Heartbreakers, and others (most captured in their prime in Amos Poe's and Ivan Kral's epochal film "Blank Generation"), as well as influential forbears such as The New York Dolls.
Like swinging London in the '60s (with a spikier haircut), New York Punk Rock was a distortion-pedal-damaged call to disaffected but artistically ambitious youth around the world, and led to an influx of creative (and destructive) energies in and around the area, culminating in the East Village art scene of the early to mid '80s. Along the way, an area with its own proud Bohemian tradition from the '30s through '70s, saw a punk- influenced aesthetic emerge, not just in music but in film (the New Cinema) and performance/art (Mudd Club, Club 57, et al.) and of course fashion. The Downtown Show references this confluence of fashion, music and art, by including Patti Astor's graff-damaged togs (tagged by Basquiat, Dondi, Fab Five Freddy, Futura 2000, Kiely Jenkins, and Kenny Scharf) as well as Haring's designs for Vivienne Westwood, early works by Betsey Johnson, Stephen Sprouse and Andre Walker. (The show at Parsons show also does a fine job charting punk's influence on design, couture and print media, including Joey Ramone's T- Shirt, issues of John Holmstrom's and Legs McNeil's "Punk" magazine, a poster by Pat Howe from Redtape Magazine ("The D-Squad"), and togs by Stephen Sprouse, Vivienne Westwood, etc..)
Strewn amidst its categories, The Downtown Show mostly pays respectful homage to this (d)evolution, focusing on the creative cauldron that was Club 57, and its leading lights are well-represented: Keith Haring, Ann Magnuson, Kenny Scharf, Klaus Nomi, et al., as well as painters like James Nares and David McDermott, and musicians such as John Lurie and Rhys Chataham, This core of the new Downtown cool also made frequent appearances at the Mudd Club (where Haring curated a key show in 1981(?), featuring Jean Michel Basquiat, Scharf and other grafitti inspired painters), and on Glenn O'Brien's early cable variety show, TV Party. The Club 57 kids were the true children of Warhol, who saw America (and especially America as media simulacrum) through a whimsical and satirical, though coolly detached lens. And, well before Prince, knew how to party like it was 1999 (er, 1979). The films of the New Cinema, also known as Punk Cinema, and later No-Wave Cinema, are represented by Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, Beth and Scott B, Sarah Driver, Charlie Ahearn, and stills from Jim Jarmusch's 1979 feature "Permanent Vacation and his later 1984 breakout, "Stranger Than Paradise". However, Nick Zedd's "They Eat Scum", perhaps stylistically the punkest of punk films (lauded by John Waters) is not referenced here, nor is the work of filmmaker/animator M. Henry Jones, who worked with Club 57 faves, the Fleshtones.)
Further down in the Lower East Side, the artists collective that would become known as Collaborative Projects (or Colab) was forming in 1979, whose first major action was the Real Estate Show in a squatted space on Delancey Street. (Although a photo from the opening of the Real Estate Show, featuring Joseph Beuys and an uncredited Alan Moore is included in "The Downtown Book", the subsequent events at the ABC No Rio space, granted Colab by the City following their eviction from the Delancey Street space, are given short shrift in the Downtown Show.) The mission of Colab was to free artists from the traditional galleries and spaces by acting collectively, and their artworks focused attention on an array of social ills, and sometimes offered whimsical solutions toward solving them. Many artists associated with Colab are featured in the Downtown Show (especially in the "Mock Shop" or artists' multiples section), including John Ahearn, Jane Dickson, Tom Otterness, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Christy Rupp, Christof Kohlhofer, Walter Robinson, Justen Ladda, Joseph Nechvatal, Bobby G. Becky Howland, and the "A. More Store" (founded by Alan Moore), which offered many of their wares. But Colab's most celebrated achievement was not strictly a "downtown event"; in 1980, gathering energies, from not just the Colab artists, but street artists associated with Club 57 like Basquiat and Haring, and graffiti artists from Fashion Moda uptown, coalesced to produce the Time Square Show, now considered a watershed event of the "downtown" art scene. Curiously, though, the biggest art event of 1983 (which also occurred outside "downtown"), "The Terminal Show" in the vast abandoned Brooklyn Army Terminal, which featured a cross-section of artists and performers in "Downtown" along with hundreds of others, receives no mention at all.
Elephant Dung Sculpture, 1978
Elephant dung, paint, and gold leaf
#5 ¼ x 6 x 5 ¼ in. (13.3 x 15.2 x 13.3 cm)
Private collection, New York
By 1981-82, graffiti and street art had burst upon the downtown gallery scene in a major way, both in the East Village/Lower east Side and in Soho. 51X gallery, next to Club 57, became the first EV gallery to cater to graffiti-inflected art, then the original FUN gallery on 11th Street. These galleries mainly catered to graffiti and street artists, but also included sculptors such as the late Kiely Jenkins. Soon, Nature Morte, Gracie Mansion, and Civilian Warfare opened small storefronts, and the main wave of the East Village art boom was well underway. Around this time many of the artists associated with this wave, including Luis Frangella, Steven Lack and David Wojnarowicz created mural-like paintings in an abandoned pier on the West Village, a place mainly used for illicit sex. The Downtown Show presents photo documentation of this event, along with other paintings and artifacts of the early EV art scene, including a paint-smeared suit belonging to Basquiat and a crib bombed with graffiti by Haring and LA2, most of this street-inflected work finding its way into the "Salon de Refuse" section. Other artists ssociated with the early EV art scene such as Mike Bidlo, Arch Connelly, Rhonda Zwillinger, Rodney Greenblat, Nicholas Mouffarege and Martin Wong are bunched into this section, along with earlier "downtown" creations by Colette, Schnabel and Hammons. (But why isn't David Finn, an East Village sculptor who created stunning tableau from garbage bags, included in the "refuse salon"?)
Though most of the principals are acknowledged, The Downtown Show's coverage of the EV art scene in '83 and '84 proceeds in fits and starts, understandably omitting a number of important artists from that time on account of the sheer glut of talent (and otherwise) that began to pour into the East Village. Amidst its categories, the Grey Gallery references neo-conceptualist (or "Neo-Geo") artists like Peter Halley (an early 'prison conduit' (1981) is included in the "Sublime Time" section) and Jeff Koons (because his work is supposedly consumer society-critical, included in "the Mock Shop") and other artists associated with International with Monument gallery on 7th Street, which would supplant "street art" as the dominant art-world-sanctioned aesthetic. Perhaps not so ironically, many of the grittier EV artists curator Carlo McCormick enthusiastically championed during these years -- and who would impact the East Village scene for years to come, are not included: Keiko Bonk, Ken Hiratsuka, Julius Klein, Mark Kostabi, Rick Prol, Philip Pocock, James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook, and others, along with up-from-nothing East Village magazines like "Avenue A", 'World War 3 Illustrated", "Between C& D" (on the late side, in '84) and "Redtape", which had published 4 of its 7 issues before 1985. (The complete archive of which is in the Fales library, right under the procurator's thumbing nose.)
Regarding the portion of The Downtown Show in the Fales itself, "Body Politics" is devoted to artists, mainly photographers and performers who pushed (or altogether discarded) the envelope concerning social/sexual taboos. Here we find photographers like Jimmy DeSana, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe , David Wojnarowicz , Richard Kern, Charles Gatewood and artifacts by artists/performers Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, Annie Sprinkle, Carolee Schneeman, Greer Lankton, Jane Dickson and Tim Miller. Its nice to see an early still from a Kembra Pfahler film included in this section, along with photos from a Karen Finley performance, but why not also Bradley Eros' and Aline Mare's "Erotic Psyche" multimedia performances? (And where is Andres Serrano, who was exhibiting his disturbing photos at A & P gallery in 1984?) Also on view here is a small photo documenting one of Richard Hambleton's "Shadow" figures. A street artist whose scope and notoriety once rivaled Basquiat and Haring, Hambleton's paintings were conspicuously absent on opening night from the Grey Gallery (nor was it listed in the checklist). Yet upon returning a few days later, one of his signature figures (its stature shrunken like the artist's own) appeared slumped against a corner of the "Salon de Refuse", with what could only be a middle finger raised in shadowy derision. Another part of the Library is decorated with artefacts mainly from Colab and especially from the Times Square Show. This is part of the "De-Signs" sector, which also features word and image works which used the urban context to recontextualize their messages (artists as diverse as Jenny Holzer, Ilona Granet, Les Levine, Anton Van Dalen, Matt Mullican, Lawrence Weiner and Fekner, as well as artists more associated with graffiti like Basquiat, Hambleton and Lee Quinones.) The remainder of the walls and vitrines in the Fales are taken up by various poster and flyers, mainly for rock bands (some famous, some more famous downtown (especially DNA), some otherwise forgotten) and club performances, and scattered throughout Downtown are artist's and writers books and fascinatingly obscure manuscripts, such as Richard Hell's "Journal from Patti 1974-1979", Kathy Acker's 1973 ms. "Rip Off Red: Girl Detective", Lynn Tillman's" Madame Realism"(with illos. By Kiki Smith), RAW magazine (along with Gary Panter's early "Okupant X"), and other DIY periodicals such as Public Illuminations, Barabara Ess's Just Another Asshole, and TV magazine}, along with spreads from the East Village Eye, New York Rocker, Punk, and Arturo Vega's trademark designs for the Ramones.
Colab's A More Store, December 1981
Installation at White Columns, New York
#(two gelatin silver prints)
Photographs by Lisa Kahane
#Sheets: 11 x 14 in. each
#Frames: 13 x 16 in. each
Courtesy the photographer
Another glaring omission in what is called the Downtown Show is any acknowledgment of the burgeoning performance art scene on Rivington Street, whose bellwether was the "99 Nites of Performance" at No Se No Social Club in 1983. Building on energies generated from the Storefront for Art and Architecture's performance A-Z (another notable omission), Club Armageddon in the West Village, and Arleen Schloss' A's space on Broome Street (acknowledged in the Downtown Book, though neither Schloss nor A's elicit a scrap in the "Show".) Presided by Ray Kelly and R.L. Seltman, for a new generation of performers, the No Se No club bore a similar role to that of CBGB's for musicians in the mid 70's, and was a late nexus between the quickly diverging Soho and Lower East Side scenes. Over the course of 99 consecutive nights at least one performance took place on the tiny bar in the smoky illegal social club, as seasoned performers mixed with rank amateurs (sometimes literally) cutting their teeth, and such personalities as Taylor Mead, Jackie Curtis, Ray Johnson, Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano (tied together during their one year performance at the time), mixed with performers like Dragan Ilic, Phoebe Legere, KWOK, Penelope Wehrli, Howie Solo, Jack Waters and Peter Cramer, Christa Gamper, Julius Klein, Bradley Eros and Aline Mare, Schloss, Pfahler , and assorted poets, along with neophytes such as Vindaloo, Peggy Cyphers, David White and others. (McCormick was there himself for many of these "Nites" and tended bar at No Se from time to time.) Most of the "Nites" are vibrantly captured in numerous b/w photos by Toyo Tsuchiya, and would have been nice to see some acknowledgment of that scene, that in 1984 also spawned Casa Nada and the Rivington gallery scene, the street artists of the Rivington School and Sculpture Garden.
Ditto ABC no Rio. Though lip service is paid this small bastion of artistic freedom on the Lower East Side, "Downtown" basically regards events there as an afterthought to the Times Square Show and the founding Colab artists who showed there early on. No acknowledgement is made of the fact that many early shows focused on issues especially germane to the area, and from the beginning part of No Rio's mission was to interact positively with the surrounding resident culture. The encroachment of gentrification, police brutality, and the ravages of drugs were always major issues. No Rio's early years from 1980-84 are well-documented in video, and in Alan Moore and Marc Miller's "ABC No Rio Dinero" which the "Downtown Show" did not even think worthy of sequestering in a vitrine. And while Madonna is inarguably the most famous media personality the East Village produced during that time, is it necessary to waste a whole display on her plastic baubles designed by Maripol?
These cavils aside, the Downtown Show is a sprawling and ambitious, star-strewn adventure through the not so (for me, anyway) distant past. It hits a lot of the right marks, especially in the earlier years it covers, makes some surprising connections, and should be lauded for uncovering multiple levels of interaction between various creative media and personalities that produced successive scenes in (or of) the geographical area known as "downtown" New York City during the period 1974-1984. It also acknowledges the contributions of a great many artists hitherto under-appreciated, and redresses some of the lacunae of recent offerings like "East Village USA". (Supposedly a sequel to the Downtown Show, (1984-94?) is already in the offing; hypocrite lecteur: bate thy breath or bite thy tongue?) Yet, cram-packed, illuminating and entertaining though the exhibition may be (some of it even brings back the fun, and the madness), it remains a survey, and thereby necessarily incomplete. Moreover, its conflation of SoHo, Lower East Side, TriBeCa, East and West Village, all under the rubric "Downtown" (what about Wall Street?) -- especially after 1980, is a serious conceptual flaw that fails to sufficiently acknowledge the economic and cultural forces which were even then at work dividing up this turf, separating the Cool from the cooler.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that such a show at NYU gives short shrift to artists who fought the gentrification of its very neighborhood, as the University has become a major developer there and is at least indirectly responsible for skyrocketing rents and property values, which have driven all but the wealthiest or luckiest artists out, including some artists in the Downtown Show (those who neither had the good taste to die of AIDS or other socially-sanctioned ailments, nor win lotto…). With the Downtown Collection, NYU has indeed amassed a vast and impressive archive of visual, literary, media-based and culturally-significant works and artifacts, and personally, I'm very happy to have had my little magazine included there. But the very image of NYU gobbling up scraps of an artistic milieu whose raison d'etre was anti-institutional at its core and mostly resistant to corporate capitalism more than a little resembles those 19th century robber barons who founded great museums to assuage their complicity. Also, while institutions like NYU obviously enrich the literary, artistic and filmic culture of New York by continuing to nurture individual talents, these same also tend to produce and encourage a culture of specialization that would be anathema to the multi-faceted "renaissance" artists of "Downtown." The contemporary field of the visual arts, say, with its thousands of artists graduated each year and thousands of galleries, has grown to resemble a strangely-mutated corporate form, whose highly-trained and specialized candidates are groomed, evaluated and promoted, competing for rewards of celebrity and wealth, the social impact of their practice a secondary afterthought. "Downtown" on the other hand, attempts to reconstruct an era when creative individuality was contagious, and the virus it spread, though dangerous and even deadly to some, could also be liberating and vital, certainly inspiring; often transcendent. Yet as exhausting as the exhibit can be, it is far from exhaustive, and has perhaps thrown a net so wide a good many (anti)social butterflies (and nasty moths, waterbugs, blackflies, etc.) have been missed; the "Downtown Show" (supplemented by the "Book") documents the trail left by over two hundred artists -- but the story of that "downtown" (or again, so many several stories) is incomplete without the efforts of several hundred others. "Downtown" hits most of the high water marks, already part of lore and legend, and adds a splash of new recognitions to the pool, but like a good snotnosed punk rocker, pisses on diamonds in its own backyard.
Candy Darling on her Deathbed, 1974
Vintage gelatin silver print
15 7/8 x 19 7/8 in. (40.3 x 50.5 cm)
Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York