PART ONE –
A few years ago, for a talk at a show in Amsterdam reflecting on the export version of “East Village art,” I ruminated on what the East Village art boom of the 1980s was all about. I suggested that for art history, the period marked the end of the hegemony of abstraction in New York art, the rebirth of unregenerate expressionism and the return of literary content in art. It also saw the vengeance of the vernacular in the form of graffiti, with mostly young untrained artists of color using wildly colorful letter forms in public campaigns of self-advertisement.
All these strains had been carefully expunged from American art in the 1940s and 50s, the era of the New York Abstract Expressionist establishment. This attitude, called formalism, continued untroubled through the Minimal art period of the 1960s and '70s. Expression, content, and popular form had been expunged through the critical campaigns of Clement Greenberg against the effects of the Surrealist movement, and the despised Socialist Realism. The vernacular had been purged earlier, during the uprising against Alfred Barr's exhibition of garment-cutter-turned-painter Morris Hirshfeld at the Museum of Modern Art.
When I arrived in New York City as a baby critic in 1974, Greenberg was alive and kicking, and engaging with his critical positions was still a necessary hurdle to an academic art career.
The East Village years also saw the rise of new forms of self-organization. This had begun in Soho, in the 1970s with alternative spaces and artists' collectives. On the Lower East Side, what Liza Kirwin called the “East Village gallery movement” of the 1980s was self-organization in a suit-and-tie, an appropriation and mimickry of the established form of the commercial art gallery.
In the larger field of artistic production, the conditions under which artists work, the decade of the 1980s saw the consummation of the union of art, fashion, and popular culture, which took place in the heated bordellos of New York City's giant nightclubs.
The 1980s saw the triumph of what Fluxus theorist Dick Higgins called intermedia art, through the same means Fluxus artists had used in the 1960s, that is, through combining art and music, and emphasizing creative social life and game playing with the audience. None of this was able to be contained in what Brian O'Doherty famously called the “white cube” of the modernist exhibition space. All of it found its reflection, its projection, in the burgeoning genre of video, particularly television.
Finally there is the historical circumstances of the decade, economic, medical and political. Most prominent was the start of a ruthless campaign of gentrification by vested capital, and a horrifying usually fatal epidemic of sexually transmitted disease welcomed as God's vengeance on homosexuals by the radical right wing of the governing federal party in power. The first, but especially the latter, reignited the fires of explicitly politicized art and action in a tide that overwhelmed the residual objections of critics that politics has no place in art. (That position was the bargain that old-line postwar liberals – the “monuments men” – had struck in an effort to keep contemporary art pure, elite, and government funded. The '80s generation broke this contract definitively, even when it meant the loss of government funding.)
All of the foregoing is something like a conventional art historical framing of the question of 1980s NYC art. It is my reflections on what happened during that decade, and what effects it had in changing the practice of art and culture.
But to look at the situation through the lens of real public space, varieties of which were freely available in NYC in the '70s and '80s, and the pressure of repression – some political, but mostly economic – is going to deliver a different picture of what went on then. And that's what I am going to attempt to do for you tonight.
I'll try to set the scene by condensing a chunk of text I wrote for an article called “Crosstown Traffic.” It compares the two cultural districts of lower Manhattan (I call them bohemias), the west of the 1970s and the east of the 1980s. This was where most NYC artists lived then, the older ones in Soho, the new arrivals in the Lower East Side. The argument of my text was that both types of districts – one an artists' colony, the other a true bohemia – generated models which were replicated across the USA, and to some extent globally.
I wrote about them as not a single bohemia, but a dialectical entity. The two downtown communities of artists – Soho in the west and the Lower East Side (or East Village) in the east – had dramatically contrasting attitudes towards artistic style, art culture and art’s social and political position. These two models of post-modern artistic community were generated while Manhattan was still an open territory for many artists. The two creative utopias were the anarchist bohemia and the urban art colony. The Lower East Side and Soho repeated classic social and cultural oppositions: bohemian vs. bourgeois, renters vs. owners, déclassé vs. upwardly mobile, abstract formalists vs. story-telling art stars. It was the politicized academy vs. the popular culture-loving reinventors of vernacular art; the gallery and art bar vs. the café and nightclub.
Artists in Soho lived in studio work lofts illegally. These spaces had been abandoned by light industry. In time, with steady canny political pressure, the artists' status was legalized and their rights as residential tenants recognized. Like the small factory owners they displaced, artists organized entrepreneurial ventures. Space in Soho was procured for cultural purposes by rental or purchase. The exhibition “Alternatives in Retrospect” (1981) celebrated the artist-run collective spaces. (The best known was 112 Greene Street.)
In contrast, the Lower East Side teemed with people. Artists who lived there tended to hang out. They engaged as neighbors with the dense fabric of an immigrant (largely Caribbean Latino) community. This practice of what jazz artist David Amram called “hangoutology,” was necessary for negotiating life in the district. While Soho dwellers lived in secret, hiding their illegal lofts from city officials, so people on the Lower East Side needed to know their neighbors to avoid being victimized by crime. Artists there strengthened and broadened the social safety net. They started community gardens. They decorated “casitas,” the little recreational clubhouses built on the many vacant lots. And they strengthened the immigrant metropolitan coffee house culture with variations imported from west side Greenwich Village, like décor and art shows, poetry readings, café plays, consignment bookstores, and jazz clubs.
The downtown New York City of artists when I arrived in 1974 was centered around the Soho neighborhood. Richard Kostelanetz called it an artists' colony. Most of the artists there were trained, and the attitude was avant garde. Soho vanguardism permeated NYC art of '60s and '70s.
Of course this was great. It was extremely interesting and stimulating. But it was also very limited. This artists' colony was becoming the new academy. It was disdainful of the popular, jealous of the prerogatives of artistic and intellectual genius, and fetishistic about the forms of classic modernist avant-gardism stripped of relation to social and political realities. The exciting heterodox journal Avalanche, published in Soho, died and was replaced by the mandarin journal October.
A key incident in the story of public sculpture took place at the beginning of the 1980s. The bull-headed heavy metal sculptor Richard Serra received a federal commission and put his large, dour work Tilted Arc in the plaza of a new building. The workers in the building hated it, and began a process to remove it. In 1985 a hearing was held, and in 1989 the sculpture was taken out and scrapped. A plaza landscaping friendly to the workers during their lunch time replaced it. While NYC art professionals defended Serra's rights, the whole controversy initiated a prolonged reflection about what public sculpture should be. Many concluded that public commissions should be more engaged, more social, and less attuned to the imperial vanguard artist.
The commissioning agency Creative Time began an annual series of temporary public sculptures on a new location far downtown. This was a landfill that was settling for years before becoming the foundation for the Battery Park City development. This Creative Time program, called Art on the Beach, became a kind of a laboratory for public sculpture of a different kind.
Two examples of the many projects done there reveal particular attitudes toward space and public speech.
In 1984 – the title year of George Orwell's dystopian novel – a team of artists installed Freedom of Expression National Monument at Art on the Beach. This giant megaphone was pointed at the skyscrapers of the Lower Manhattan financial district. It was rebuilt in 2004, during the year of the Republican National Convention in NYC and the program of demonstrations against it.
In 1985, African-American artist David Hammons built Delta Spirit, a ramshackle highly decorated house recalling Black folk art projects of the American south. The house became a kind of stage for performances and hanging out. A few years earlier (1981) Hammons had made a performance expressing a reaction to Serra's work – he urinated on it. “I can’t stand art, actually. I’ve never, ever liked art, ever. I never took it in school.” The performance was called Pissed Off (that is, “angry”). Hammons was arrested.
But we are still on the west side, looking at the work of an innovative art institution. It's time to go east, the Lower East Side, where most of my story takes place.
I'll start with my part in this string of radical adventures, the Real Estate Show. This was a project of Collaborative Projects, or Colab – a group of artists which formed in 1978. On New Years' Eve of 1979 we occupied a building on the Lower East Side with an exhibition about real estate, that is buildings and rent.
The city locked us out. But afterr a few days of negotiation, the city drafted a letter, a “permission to use” given to one person, Rebecca Howland, for another storefront space as an artist's studio. The aseneo came from the mayor's appointed commissioner of housing. It was a high-level political solution, most probably to keep the lid on a wider possible squatting movement that involved educated middle class artists. The solution did not sit well with the line bureaucrats of the agency, a fact that would mean years of continuous trouble for the place we called ABC No Rio.
Although we were not aware of it, the Italian Autonomist movement had already opened social centers with many of the same intentions. Occupation was not so novel an action in the Lower East Side. The Puerto Rican nationalists carried out numerous building occupations during the 1970s. Some buildings were “homesteaded,” fixed up by their inhabitants with some government assistance, and vacant land left by burned down buildings was sometimes turned into community gardens.
All of this was possible because the working class neighborhoods of NYC were full of abandoned properties due to prolonged economic crisis. The city owned these properties for default of taxes, and could not manage them all. Many burned down – owners could claim the insurance on unprofitable buildings – and the city's ghettos became a patchwork of troubled apartment buildings and vacant lots. In preparing the Real Estate Show, we realized from the Puerto Rican example that a determined band of militants with a good plan could carry out a successful occupation. Today, however, the strong resistant tradition of the Puerto Rican occupations are buried in the past of a gentrified barrio. Marlis Momber's photographs show it. She lived in the district called Loisaida, a “Spanglish” name given to the barrio by Nuyorican poets, in the 1970s. Her pictures show what a notorious slum looked like to the people who lived there, abandoned by capital, neglected by the city government, making their own culture.
This was true all over the peripheries of NYC, in what are called the “outer boroughs.” (NYC has five.) Into the literal gaps in the city fabric caused by abandonment and arson for profit stepped ambitious young people, artists and cultural entrepreneurs who began to throw parties for their depressed communities. An instructive BBC documentary describes the popular beginnings of both disco music and hip hop culture in these very informal parties.
The BBC's “Once Upon A Time In New York: The Birth Of Hip Hop, Disco and Punk” begins in the later 1970s in the Bronx, a neighborhood devastated by urban renewal, bank “redlining” (the systematic denial of investment capital to minority neighborhoods), and, finally, an epidemic of landlord abandonment and arson. Young people began taking matters into their own hands, producing open air disco parties in the vacant lots where apartment buildings used to stand. Inspired by Jamaican “toast” parties, DJs started to remix vinyl records manually on twin turntables, stopping, slowing, and reversing them. They did this, in the words of one DJ, to “do things to the record that the record should have had,” that is, to make it better.
These big informal parties grew in size and popularity. But crime was a major problem. A former gang leader, Afrika Bambaata, involved the rival gangs in his productions, and the hip hop movement began to absorb the energies of the young outsiders. (An important footnote – It is too little known that urban gangs in the U.S. played important roles in the social movements of the 1960s and '70s. Every time they did, government repression on them intensified.)
Bambaata's electro funk show picked up on the music of the German band Kraftwerk. Bambaata also leaned on black nationalist and Afro-futurist imagery, following in the line of avant-garde jazz band leader Sun Ra – whose motto was “space is the place.” Bambaata's show emulated George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic whose musical mission was to create “certified Afronauts, capable of funkitizing galaxies.” In 1977 Fab Five Freddy brought the punk singer Blondie uptown to check out the scene. The band's guitarist, Chris Stein, observed that rap was deconstructivist music art, like punk. The Blondie song “Rapture” made #1 on the U.S. hit parade in 1981. In 1982, Bambaata and friends, including Afro-futurist rapper and graffiti artist Rammellzee, toured Europe.
White artists from our Colab group began early on to interact with the mostly black and Latino young people who were making this culture happen. Austrian artist Stefan Eins opened the Fashion Moda gallery in the South Bronx in 1978, and began to show graffiti artists. Filmmaker Charlie Ahearn began to explore the hip hop parties of the South Bronx. His twin brother John began to make life casts of local residents on the sidewalk in front of Fashion Moda. Charlie would soon produce the cult classic hip hop feature film Wild Style in 1983.
PLAY “WILD STYLE” VIDEO
Wild Style Theatrical Trailer
All of this activity, this linking of trained white artists with communities of color – what liberals then called the “underprivileged” – as well as many of the political positions which lay behind these intentions, was made manifest in a show Colab produced in the summer of 1980 in Times Square, the traditional center of working class amusement.
The building was empty. It had been a warren of small businesses including massage parlors, part of the sex business that was a major attraction of the Times Square district. The owner gave permission for Colab artists to use it for a show. Here an integrated politicized artworld was exposed in a large-scale artist-organized exhibition.
PLAY “TIMES SQUARE SHOW” ADVERTISEMENTS
Times Square Show (1980)
Putting an art exhibition in a center of popular entertainment was a strategy Colab followed a year later in the little known Coney Island Show. The seaside area in Brooklyn was derelict, largely abandoned, until artists moved in and began to work with the remnant amusement businesses there. A close relationship with the owner of the wax museum and other “carnies” in the district led to the founding of an art-centered project called the Coney Island Hysterical Society. This became a center of the new circus movement, fronted by Dick Zigun. Their annual Mermaid Parade along the Coney Island beach boardwalk has also become a big city spectacle.
The Times Square Show was a big hit. It's in a recent coffee table book of major exhibitions of the 20th century. But it also set off an individualist scramble among our group of artists for gallery representation. Colab lost many members to success or its pursuit, and the group's membership changed almost entirely. I continued to work with the group, but at a distance, not attending the regular assemblies.
While local spatial conditions allowed the hip hop culture to come into being in an economically devastated minority community, the crossover – i.e., the mainstream cultural success of that movement – was enabled I suggest by its managed entry into the prepared ground of festive culture in lower Manhattan.
CHANGE SLIDE PRESENTATIONS
This festive culture in lower Manhattan.has historical roots in Greenwich Village, at the turn of the last century an immigrant Italian district shared by bohemian artists and writers. Before the First World War, Randolph Bourne called this the “lyrical left,” a political and artistic community closely tied to Paris.
This west side district saw bohemian life centered for years around Polly's restaurant and the Liberal Club, and later Romany Marie's restaurant. A golden moment in this period of culture is expressed in a well-known incident of 1917, when painter John Sloan and Marcel Duchamp, together with some actors and poet friends, sneaked in a door to mount the top of the Washington Square Arch. There they drank, fired toy pistols, and proclaimed the “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square.” A fun incident, often recalled as festive. But note, Duchamp, together with Francis Picabia and other artists were dodging the French wartime draft [conscription] by staying in the U.S. and South America. The arch itself was a war memorial honoring George Washington. That same year, The Masses magazine where many artists, including Sloan, published political cartoons was closed for criticizing the wartime draft [conscription].
Greenwich Village artists produced the Greenwich Village follies every year. This show capitalized on the interest of uptown bourgeois “tourists” in the glamorous bohemian life. After oppression and the lure of the Russian revolution emptied the political from Greenwich Village, the community traded on its louche image, even as the district began to gentrify – what sociologist Caroline Ware then called “in-migration”.
After the war, as gentrification began, the culture became much more self-exploiting, delivering itself as spectacle to a bourgeois audience, in NYC and in its outlying “colonial” communities of Woodstock, New York and Providence, Rhode Island.
After World War II, NYC's bohemia during the time of the “beatnik” centered around jazz nightclubs – the dark smoke-filled basement where everyone is wearing sunglasses. The “hippie” period in the Lower East Side was built up in cultural partnership with the beatniks' sister city of San Francisco. At big clubs like the Filmore East (its name a reference to San Francisco), west coast bands like the Doors, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane built their national reputation. Andy Warhol produced the Velvet Underground in these clubs. The Black Mask family of Ben Morea made their notorious demand of the owner that a free night of concerts be established, and later tore down the fences that kept people out of the rural concert near Woodstock.
These are the historical roots of post-Vietnam-era spectacle culture. Downtown NYC festive culture of the 1970s and '80s mixed all these modes. It started in the mid-1970s on the alcoholic skid row [suburbio] street called the Bowery, in CBGBs nightclub with the punk wave of Ramones and Patti Smith. It became infused with art sensibility in the Mudd Club in 1977, a punk art answer to the glittery celebrity uptown disco world of Studio 54. It was then intensely commercialized and expanded during the decade of the '80s in a series of large nightclubs – Danceteria, Palladium, Limelight, and the Paradise Garage. Along this route, many other small venues [lugares] were autonomously organized by artists, musicians and party-lovers.
This era of the big nightclubs was international, and coincided with the Spanish movida.
Our place, ABC No Rio, didn't initially emphasize festive culture – it wasn't a nightclub – but we did participate.
We were immediately trumped, beaten, outflanked in the baby club game by the East Village based Club 57. This gang of artists produced parties in a rented church basement with direct references to the popular TV shows of the past, which our artistic culture disdained. The self-organized artists' nightclub of Club 57 had the dynamic performer Anne Magnuson (later a successful Hollywood character actress). It had the School of Visual Arts kids Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. Scharf said, “At Club 57 there were drugs and promiscuity—it was one big orgy family. Sometimes I’d look around and say, “Oh, my God! I’ve had sex with everybody in this room!” It was just the spirit of the times—and it was before AIDS, remembers Scharf, In 1981 Steve Mass of Mudd Club began showing up at Club 57, and began hiring Club 57 people. Keith Haring was hired to curate art shows at the Mudd Club. [FNWikipedia - “Club 57”]
The Mudd Club began in the late 1970s as an artists' club. Anyone could get in, and it was a coterie thing, way downtown in Tribeca. After the Real Estate Show closed, our group held a performance, a mock hearing of city officials. Soon after, the ABC No Rio Cardboard Band played there. No Wave cinema filmmaker Tina L'hotsky became “queen of the Mudd Club,” organizing themed parties there. But, in a kind of inevitable progression, the velvet rope soon went up, and bigtime celebrities started coming in limousines. Unlike the nomadic, deliberately subcultural and long-lived Jackie 60 project, the hunger for novel fun leads to exclusion of all but the fashionable.
A giant club with a relatively egalitarian “door policy,” Danceteria carefully cultivated its artistical reputation. The owner Rudolf worked with Jim Fouratt, an important gay activist in the 1960s.
PLAY Danceteria COMMERCIAL 1:30
Danceteria television commercial 1984
At ABC No Rio, when our group, the first cadre grew tired in 1983, a second came along to take our place. Two gay artists, entertainment workers at the Pyramid Club, took over the directorship in 1983. They began with a week-long sleep-in performance festival called “Seven Days of Creation,” and continued through a decade of performance art oriented activities. These years coincided with the East Village art gallery movement happening several blocks north.
The East Village had dozens of small clubs hosting performance. One of the perennials was the late performer Tom Murrin, stage name The Alien Comic. His show was based on props, mainly weird masks made from trash. This video also concludes with a montage of posters that would have been put up on the street for his shows.
PLAY TOM MURRIN'S “FULL MOON SHOW” VIDEO 3:02
Tom Murrin's Full Moon Show
By the end of the 1980s, these two, Jack Waters and Peter Cramer, became exhausted. They turned ABC No Rio over to the punk music collective. This group was organizing punk rock shows in the basement of ABC. They had started because CBGBs, which held a weekly punk matinee show for young people, was starting to fill up with assholes and skinheads (Nazi-lovers), and people were getting beaten. It was becoming a place where gay and nonviolent punks did not feel safe. The punk shows at ABC No Rio were ultimately run by anarcho-punks, who brought with them the values and attitudes of English bands like Crass and west coast bands like Dead Kennedys. Bands who played there during the late '80s and '90s include: Three Teens Kill Four – a band with artist David Wojnarowicz, Reagan Youth, Animal Crackers, Puzzlehead, Citizen's Arrest, Born Against, Bugout Society, Rorshach, The Pist, The Casualties, Dysfunctional Youth, and Ricanstruction.
The Club 57 ethos of full on party, dress and spectacle became a culture of fashionable presence. A prominent early 1980s performer, John Sex, came from the milieu I worked in at the East Village Eye magazine. John was a printer by day. By night he lit up Danceteria and many other nightclub stages.
The extravagance of his dress and his sexy strip-tease show were John's main draw cards on stage. He and others like him inspired a colorful horde of young party people, most of them gay or bisexual, enjoying their flash of youth through costuming and parading through NYC's large clubs. Some of them became party promoters, arranging events for pay.
AIDS [la Sida] cut into this culture deeply, taking out Tseng Kwong Chi, a talented Chinese photographer working with the Club 57 and Fun Gallery groups, as well as Keith Haring, who worked closely with the Paradise Garage, a huge gay club famous for launching the “house” music DJ style. Jean-Michel Basquiat succumbed to a heroin overdose in 1988.
But the full-on party people didn't stop. The continuous libidinal outpouring expressed in dress and antic attitude rolled on through the '80s and into the '90s, enlivening the giant nightclubs with their ceaseless appetite for novelty in leisure. A repurposed church called the Limelight was the regular home of the tribe called the Club Kids. This band roamed far and wide. The video documentarian Nelson Sullivan (also an AIDS victim) videotaped one of the many so-called “outlaw parties” they held in the late '80s at a McDonald's fast foood restaurant in midtown Manhatan. It's an early version of a flash mob.
The Club Kids gang was led by Michael Alig in the late 1980s and '90s. A professional event promoter and heavy consumer of the drug du jour – powder cocaine and Ecstasy – Alig was convicted of murder over a drug deal. (His story is told in the 2003 feature film Party Monster starring Macaulay Culkin.) The Limelight was the target of a long city campaign to close it, and its owner was finally deported.
Criminal elements, from small fry drug dealers to organized crime, were involved in nightclubs. This is nothing new. Since times of national Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, criminals have been involved in the business. (Here's a picture by gay modernist Charles Demuth of the Golden Swan in Greenwich Village. Nicknamed the Hell Hole and the Bucket o’ Blood, the bar was a hangout of the local gang Hudson Dusters – and many artists.) Unlike bourgeois, artists are not always uncomfortable with criminals. The mixed economy within which they survive includes crime. But Rudolph Giuliani, as a reforming Republican Mayor of NYC, had earned a reputation as a federal prosecutor of organized crime. (His own father had worked for the mob from time to time.) During his two term administration, nearly all of NYC's nightclubs closed or were shut down.
Giuliani was also a master of “dog whistle” politics, with his attacks on black artists Chris Olfili and Renee Cox for sacrilege, and in general, radically unsympathetic to culture and the left – but that's the story of the 1990s, that is, the story of how this unruly flowering festive culture was wiped out.