Downtown: Legend, Myth and Institutionalized Caprice
Downtown: Legend, Myth and Institutionalized Caprice
curated by Carlo McCormick
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
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
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
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,
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
Further down in the
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)
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
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.
Colab's A More Store, December 1981
Installation at White Columns,
#(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
Ditto ABC no
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 "
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
Candy Darling on her Deathbed, 1974
Vintage gelatin silver print
15 7/8 x 19 7/8 in. (40.3 x 50.5 cm)