Sunday, February 19, 2023
Memoir #17: Stefan Eins – from Soho to the South Bronx – Part One
This post comes out of research for my last book, Art Worker. (The e-book is now available to order.) Last month I posted Joe Lewis' recollections of Fashion Moda spoken during an event in Los Angeles for an exhibition of John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, two of the principal artists at the South Bronx art space. Joe was co-director. This post reports in two parts the interview I had with Stefan Eins in 2019, the artist best known as the founding genius of Fashion Moda.
Fashion Moda was an artist's concept. It was also a place, a situation, an open house for creativity. Fashion Moda was a project conceived by Stefan Eins during the heroic era of alternative spaces in NYC, the 1970s. “The Moda” as it was called by its habitues ultimately failed to institutionalize. (If indeed that is a failure; more recent project art is short-term.) During its decade-plus years of existence, however -- 1979 to 1993 – Fashion Moda played a central role in the cultural revival in the South Bronx, and a pivotal role in the story of late 20th century contemporary art in NYC.
In 1979 Stefan signed the lease on a blasted-out storefront. Amidst a truly ruined neighborhood of firetrap social clubs, storefront churches, parking lots and trainyards, the concept with the international name – Fashion 时髦 Moda МОДА – found a home.
The NYC artworld had already relocated from its traditional center – 57th Street, midtown – to the place where artists were living, the derelict factory zone of Soho downtown. This geographical shift in spaces for living, working and showing art re-tuned spatial sensibilities, sculptural feeling, and the “window” of the painted image to an industrial scale.
When capital reclaimed Soho for luxury lofts and fashion stores, the artists and galleries were bought out or evicted. They moved east. The East Village art scene of the 1980s, which colonized the working class barrio of Lower East Side, refocussed art-making again on the cafe bistro scale of the School of Paris, and the delicate registers of 57th Street modernism – but that was the '80s.
Yes, we’re talking real estate. Without which nothing. Said the ancient: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth.”
Stefan started his kind of project early in the ’70s. The Austrian artist rented a storefront on Mercer Street, near Canal Street. He could live, work and show all in the same place. That was the 3 Mercer Store. It was around the corner from a related project by George Maciunas, the Fluxus Shop at 359 Canal Street.
There is little trace on the internet or in art history of this project. (Only scholar-dealer Marc H. Miller, who bought ephemera from Stefan, posts about the 3 Mercer Store.) But this tiny store became a key center for young artists to show during the middle ’70s in Soho.
I met Stefan in ’75, just walking by the store. I went in and talked to him. He showed me his work. As his luck would have it, I was a young punk writing for Artforum. And I wrote up his store.
On my research trip in 2019, I ran into Stefan Eins on 57th Street at an opening of Tom Otterness’ work. Natty as ever, he asked me to call on him. After some bumps – he was having surgery, I had a cold – we sat down in his hotel room in midtown.
Stefan was an art organizer, a kind of project artist/curator before that was an artworld thing. His was the kind of early innovative art work that enlarged possibilities for art in the present. At his 3 Mercer Street in Soho artists could do what they wanted, this at a time when commercial galleries were closed to many. Some performed: Geoffrey Hendricks did a haircut performance; Mitch Corber recited poetry under the influence of onions. Others showed artworks gallery-style, like my first roommate Mike Malloy who put up his interactive shelf sculptures. Tom Otterness showed large photostatic prints; Judy Rifka photocopies of drawings derived from her studies of dance. The 3 Mercer Store wasn’t a gallery, but some of the shows were covered in the art press.
Those artists and more would join Colab, and I met some of them at Stefan’s. That’s what I recall clearly. Most of what happened there is lost to the record. Stefan didn’t keep many records then. One poster of the 3 Mercer Store lists items for sale by dozens of artists who subscribed to the concept.
3 Mercer Store poster, 1975. gallery.98bowery.com
Stefan’s interest was in the situation he had created. It was his studio, but it was also a store in the old architectural mode of artisan stores – the shop in front, living quarters in the back. In 1975 when I wandered in, there was no show on. It was only him, with his crowbar and airpump and bottle of water. He showed me how he worked them. A fog in the botle and a wisp of water vapor above it resulted after some hand pumping. “Magic!” I wrote about them as art between object and performance.
This was clearly Duchampian – minimal variety, in the vein of the Rotoreliefs, which Duchamp first offered for sale at a fair for inventors in 1935. (That event, the Concours Lépine, continues to this day.) That stream of Duchampian influence on post-modern artists wasn’t even so clear to me then. When I wrote about Jean Dupuy for Artforum, he referenced the modernist master explicitly, and was deeply interested in word play and games.
Stefan wanted to sell art, but in a way unlike what the numerous art galleries popping up then in Soho were trying to do. He wanted a mass audience. He hooked up with Neke Carson and Jaime Davidovich to sell objects at the New York novelty fair. Stefan had a bird made of light plastic which flapped its wings and flew – miraculous!, and a poster of a UFO. (The crowbar and air pump-water bottle trick were not so commercial.)
One artist who clearly got what he was doing was Sherrie Levine. She had bought a collection of childrens’ shoes in California and brought them to New York when she moved there. “In 1977,” she told an interviewer, “Barbara Ess introduced me to Stefan Eins who was running the Three Mercer Street Store. He was looking for artists who wanted to show things ... that weren’t the kind of thing you find in a gallery, but which made reference to the store. Barbara told him about the shoes, and we did a show that took place on two weekends. Two shoes sold for two dollars, and they sold out immediately.”
Mike Malloy. gallery.98bowery.com
“Constance Lewallen: This reminded me of Oldenburg’s store but actually it was quite different, because you sold things you bought and he sold things he made.
“Levine: Right. It was a Duchampian gesture.”
Sherrie Levine’s shoes reappeared as a Parkett edition in 1992.
Sherrie Levine, "Two Shoes", 1992
My text for Artforum on Eins’ minimally material performative conceptual artwork, and another article in Art-Rite helped him to get a state grant for 3 Mercer. When the money came in, Stefan took me and Edit DeAk to the Russian Tea Room. That next grant bankrolled the rental of the riot-ravaged South Bronx storefront that would become Fashion Moda.
After doing a store in Soho with underground success, Stefan opened “not an art gallery but ‘a collection of science, invention, technology, art and fantasy’” way uptown. Lucy Lippard wrote Fashion Moda together with Colab and ABC No Rio. So did Grace Glueck in the New York Times. Fashion Moda was a big success. It closed in 1993.
Stefan lives in an “other dimensional” world. Many of his works are dated years ahead. (I have a painting from the 1980s dated 2020.) Interviewing him can be frustrating. It’s not really a conversation. His statements are often preceded by long silences. His memory may now be vague on particulars, but he has never really cared for them. He knows what he wants to say and does not care to expand upon it. He asserts historical relevance in the most sweeping terms.
Stefan's midtown hotel room where I met him is small: one room to live in, with a bathroom and some kind of tiny kitchen. It was wall to ceiling artworks, mostly collages recently made.
Stefan Eins: My stuff is on the internet too. You should go on the website. I give you my card.
I explained that I was writing a memoir, and my interview project this fall was involved with that. Art Gangs (2011) was scholarly. This is more personal.
Alan Moore: I want to go back and look at my years here.
SE: You have a distance.
AM: Yes. The people, the groups, the movements that i was involved with. What I perceive is --
SE: You probably know Stefan Eins. You know who he is?
AM: …. I was going a lot to 112 Greene Street then. Living on Broome Street with a cocaine dealer in a tiny bunkbed, and 3 Mercer was around the corner.... so somebody told me or I may have just wandered in. You had that back room with the oriental carpet on the table. Sehr gemütlich. Smoking some reefer. People are dropping in. It was like a social club.
SE: Yes, great. Fashion Moda too had that level. Galleries in general have components of being social clubs. If you are invited in. And you have the money to buy…. I think that is what modern art was about. The mercantile level.
AM: At the time I was working for Artforum. The weight of the artworld was in midtown, on 57th Street.
SE: It was the center, the vicinity of the MoMA....
AM: I was also going to René Block's gallery, and learning about his artists and the Fluxus movement. I’ve seen a book here, Ich kenne kein Weekend (2015), about René’s work in Berlin. He was really important for the Fluxus movement. In the U.S. the emphasis is on George Maciunas. I don't know if you knew him? There is a biography of him called Mr. Fluxus. René Block was important in promoting this kind of performative art life esthetic, which I found very congenial as against this kind of militarized, imperialist minimal art, arrogant, insistent on its own sublimity...
SE: That's why I did my own spaces.
This went on for a bit. I talked about René and Irene Von Zahn, Richard Hayman at the Ear Inn, Lil Picard, the Fluxus circle. Stefan did not comment. This was along the lines of an earlier not-so-productive interview years earlier. Stefan refuses to be connected with anything Fluxus… while I am sure he was. (Could it be that I was the one connected to Fluxus? And that my admiration of the movement primed me for Stefan’s work? Nah.)
SE: You were in touch with all the Colab people.
AM: That happened slowly. And also through your space, because you were showing these guys.
SE: Tom Otterness showed there before anywhere else.
AM: Did Jenny Holzer show at 3 Mercer?
SE: We did Documenta together.... She came there regularly. She did show there, yeah. She did presentations there.
AM: Do you remember what kind of work she did?
SE: Writing already.
AM: I know you had the little shoes of Sherrie Levine.…
SE: I wanted to be independent. And I did my own thing there. I produced art that was not necessarily focussed on doing one piece at a time. It was focussed on doing art or projects that can be sold on a mass market level.…
AM: You were working with Neke Carson and Jaime Davidovich. You did a catalogue?...
SE: Yes. We did projects that were not standard artworld presentations. My interest was not in just doing painting and sculpture. My interest was in doing all kinds of projects which are not that. My crowbar is somewhere around here. It could lift 20 times the weight. So that unusual miraculous component was important to me. It still is….
I think what I have done at 3 Mercer, not doing painting and sculpture – and that really was the modernist tradition, more or less, and doing Fashion Moda I think was the beginning of contemporary art. It was the end of modern art….
Next: Memoir #18: Stefan Eins #2: Fashion Moda and the Hidden Dimensions
In the next post, we get to the meat of the matter, Fashion Moda. Stefan gets sick of Soho. He meets Joe Lewis. Shows in “Rooms”, the exhibition that opened P.S. 1. I interject ruminations on Colab, the famous F/M store at Documenta, and art historical “consequences”. Then we veer off into Stefan's real concern, the extra dimensions and the world of the unseen that is revealed to him through material signs in the everyday environment. Which is what it’s always been about.
LINKS AND REFERENCES
Alan W. Moore, Art Worker: Doing Time in the New York Artworld (2022; Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, LA & Leipzig) – in paper and e-book
Joe Lewis' recollections….
“Art Gangs” blog post: “Long-Closed in the Bronx, but Well-Remembered: Joe Lewis on Fashion Moda”
Fashion 时髦 Moda МОДА
Excellent overview by the Deitch-connected artist and writer, Francesco Spampinato "Fashion Moda” in Waxpoetics no. 55, May 2013
“Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth.”
(A remark of Archimedes quoted by Pappus of Alexandria, Collection or Synagoge, Book VIII, c. AD 340)
Marc H. Miller . "Stefan Eins: Behind 3 Mercer Street and Fashion Moda". Gallery 98, 2018
Neke Carson, artist
Jaime Davidovich - Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Jai...
Sherrie Levine and Constance Lewallen, “Sherrie Levine,” n.d., journal of contemporary art, at jca-online.com/slevine.html, accessed May 2020.
Sally Webster's 1996 essay for Lisa Kahane's exhibition at the Lehman College Art Gallery, "Fashion Moda: A Bronx Experience", has been dismounted.
Monday, January 30, 2023
Long-Closed in the Bronx, but Well-Remembered: Joe Lewis on Fashion Moda
I’ve been promoting the idea of a book/catalogue of the legendary South Bronx art space Fasion Moda. No success so far, but there was this event which reminds us of the important radical role this art space played from its start in 1978 to its closnig in 1993. The door was open at Fashion Moda, not just for spectators but for participants as well. The place was an exemplary model for a new kind of public creative culture.
This is a partial transcript of a public conversation between John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, with interventions by Joe Lewis, co-director of Fashion Moda. The YouTube video begins with a film showing of the two artists casting subjects for their sculptures, a practice they began at Fashion Moda.
[12:10 in the YouTube recording] Joe Lewis:
Just to give you an idea about the territory where this happened, this is Fashion Moda, with my partner Stefan [Eins; Joe indicates photograph on the screen]. The South Bronx at this moment in time looked like Dresden. There were little pockets of community, but generally speaking it was just barren, basically.
My partner, Stefan, who was Austrian, I met him downtown and we talked a lot about politics, history, commercialism, etc., etc. And he knew he was in a bubble. And I knew that downtown [NYC artworld] was a bubble because a specific group had a stranglehold over the development of aesthetic criteria. We also believed that you didn’t have to be trained to an artist, and at that time you didn’t have to come to New York to be an artist either.
I had a residency up in the Bronx at a chemical company, and I said, “Hey, come up to the Bronx and check it out.” And he did, and found this burned-out storefront basically, put on a roof, put on a front, borrowed electricity from the city [laughter], and Fashion Moda was born….
Fashion Moda was a place where people mixed who would not normally mix under any circumstance. It wasn’t an experiment. It was an interactive creative process where different ideas and world collided to create [new ones]. Most important, the guiding principle was that no specific group of people had a stranglehold over aesthetic criteria, the creation and implementation of it, which has been proven I think in the first video [shown at the public event] by graffiti, rap, MCing, break dancing, is ubiquitous. You can’t go anywhere in the world without finding it. And this was created by teenagers, primarily of color. And today it is everywhere – Timbuktu, South Korea, whereever you want to go.
The logo of Fashion Moda was in English, [Spanish], Russian, and Chinese the word “fashion”, and that kind of set out our global view of the world, that art could be made anywhere. And at this time you have to remember there were only a handful of galleries, a handful of museums. If you had a solo show before you were 50 you were considered a whiz kid. It was Eurocentric and male, period. So it took another two or three decades for this idea of globalism to seep into the contemporary art [mechanism].
By definition we had no definition. This is really problematic for most people. Because people consistently asked us, “Whzt is Fashion Moda?” Year after year, even the neighborhood kids would stick their heads in and say, “What’s this space gonna be?”
Well, by definition Fashion Moda had no definition. We were not a gallery because we thought galleries represented colonialist ventures. We were not an alternative or artists space because we thought of them as post-colonial. I look at today’s Decolonize This movement with nostalgia.
But when pressed for a definition my partner would say, “Fashion Moda is magic.” This is the territory whee John [Ahearn] and Rigoberto [Torres] met….
[1:03:07 – Speaking about the relationship between John and Rigoberto:]
There’s a real sense of humility in the relationship, and … I think it’s something we miss today in this world. I think about this, whaddyacall it, social practice. This was like social practice at the best possible time and way. We were bringing people together. We weren’t saying, “I wanna do this, I wanna do that. You should have this” – I mean, that’s where I believe it’s gone, the academicization of social practice has made it something that is not a tool; that has made it something else. I think it’s about the creative process. Fashion Moda was like, you didn’t have to be trained, you didn’t have to have a stellar vocabulary to be involved in the creative process. In those days no one recognized that. A couple of biennales ago you had outsider artists mixed in with the folks at the Arsenale, right. We did that in 1978.
May I point out that Rigoberto’s uncle [who ran a sculpture factory producing devotional icons] had work often at Fashion Moda, work from his factory. Stefan loved them.
We had no boundaries from that…..
John and Rigoberto, but also Fashion Moda changed the trajectories of many people’s families’ lives. If you look at just the graffiti folks, Crash [John Matos], who did the [mural on the front[ of Fashion Moda, which we have a picture here of, I have a video clip of him showing Prince Albert in Monaco how to tag with a spray can. And Prince Albert the II makes a heart. I mention this because – and you [pointing to Rigoberto] went to junion high school with Crash – Crash at 19 curates “Graffiti Success for America” at Fashion Moda, and this had Lady Pink, Lee, all the best – all the OGs now. And that group of people, as well known as they’ve gotten, through the graffiti world. They’ve done Louis Vuitton, La Scala, Ferrari. This is stuff which at that time we had no idea was gonna happen. But those people have all remained connected to their neighborhoods. Crash has a gallery, he does stuff all over up in the Bronx, all over the world actually…. That impetus has continued to change the trajectory of many lives, and continues to go out like dropping a stone in a pond…. And this is a byproduct that we never even imagined when we started doing this….
[14:05] [An audience member recollects living upstairs from Rigoberto and John’s storefront studio in the Bronx]
I have a funny story about that at Fashion Moda. Jane Dickson, who is his brother’s [Charlie Ahearn, filmmaker] partner, did a piece called “City Maze” in Fashion Moda. She built a maze [of cardboard],….and she asked Crash, “Can you come in and paint this cardboard maze?” So the day that show closed I was sitting there with Robert Colescott, who I was trying to get to have a show here at Fashion Moda. We’re sittnig there, the kids are banging on the window, school has let out, and 50 kids, they’re banging on the window, and Robert Colescott is sitting there like this [Joe hunches over]. We open the door, and they come in, and they trash that maze. And Robert Colescott was like, “You want me to have a show here?” We never had a show of Robert Colescott at Fashion Moda. We did show him at the New Museum [“Events”, curated by Fashion Moda in 1981]. When wrlds collide…. What happened because of Rigoberto and John, how they created community, it was a creation as well. There are select communities, created communities, and my definition of community is whoever’s in the room that night, that’s the community, right….
Joe Lewis moderated the talk of John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres at the recent exhibition at the Broad museum in Los Angeles, which was streamed and is on YouTube."The Un-Private Collection: John Ahearn + Rigoberto Torres + Joe Lewis"
Jane Dickson "City Maze" video (7:32); rap by Fab Five Freddy
Francesco Spampinato, "Head Space"; brief article on Fashion Moda's classic period
Stefan Eins in 1987. Photo by Lisa Kahane.
Wednesday, September 7, 2022
Talking NYC in London: Post #5, I Talk Squats, and Learn About ‘Homonormativity’
This is the 5th in a series of posts about the “Approaching Downtown” symposium at the Courtauld Institute, London, in mid-July. It is drawn from my notes of a remarkable several days of talk about the late 20th century art and culture of downtown NYC. This day’s rich talks explored entrepreneurs and illegals in the East Village, concepts of art & law, queer counter-publics and homonormativity, and a workshop on “antagonisms”.
On the third day, I was set to speak in a panel that mixed illegality and entrepreneuralism. (“Same or different?”) Kristen Galvin (U of Colorado, CO Springs) spoke on Tish and Snooky of Manic Panic on St. Marks Place, storekeepers of trash and glam threads who built a global hair dye empire during the punk era.
This was fun stuff. These women performed at CBGBs as the Sic F*cks dressed as Nazi nuns, and ran a “rock and roll rummage sale” store by day. Manic Panic was a kind of community center, punk tourist attraction, art supply store, and a drag queens’ shopping center, Galvin said.
In her survey of East Village feminist business, Galvin included Club 57 run by Ann Magnuson, with her thrift and dumpster scavenging aesthetic. Among the rules of the club: “keep an eye out for old drunken Polish men”.
NYC garbage has always been a treasure trove for artists, and its use has been a style statement. Street trash was Jack Smith’s daily lode. The most extreme example I knew was musician Glenn Branca, who wore clothes he found on the street without washing them.
Patti Astor, mistress of the Fun Gallery, the pre-eminent venue for vendable graffiti art, figured in Galvin’s talk. Astor said the ‘80s was her “art school period” – “no more white walls, white people”. They were all “bugging out on each others’ style”. She was less than the complete businesswoman, however. Astor saw the Sidney Janis Gallery’s landmark post-graffiti show as predatory and speculative, pumping and dumping.
Colby Chamberlain picked up his talk on Exit Art’s “Illegal America” show with which Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo began their exhibition project. Ingberman did a masters in art and law. Art is is an abstraction, she reasoned; law is also. When art expands it conflicts with law.
Chamberlain showed Papo Colo’s fake diploma from the “Univertatis Portoricencis”. (Another Puerto Rican artist, Adal Maldonado, conceived a Puerto Rican embassy with poet Pedro Pietri. They issued passports.)
He quoted Ingberman on “illegal poetics” in which the “artist exposes him/her to a vulnerable position outside the confines of the art world”. The show poster is a photo of Ingberman holding a lamp in a Statue of Liberty pose; it’s a construction site work light (note the hook on it).
Chamberlain whizzed through several examples of illegalisms, and what Edward Fry, fired from the Guggenheim for showing Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky piece, called “post-liberal art”.
These included a 1972 self-incriminating concept work by Dennis Oppenheim, “Evidence of 153 Misdemeanors”, and an action by Richard Mock, who stole a panel from Christo’s Running Fence and put grapes on it Cesar Chavez gave him. (Chavez’s UFW union was leading a national boycott of the fruit.) Chamberlain also worked on George Maciunas, Fluxus macher and wildcat Soho co-op developer.
Lawyer Jerald Ordover represented Maciunas, and also the artist provocateur, Jean Toche of the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG), when the Belgian ex-pat was arrested and interrogated by the FBI (at the request of the Guggenheim museum management, as I recall).
The Blogger Speaks
I was in this panel, and talked about “Occupation Culture” in NYC, that is, artists involved in and alongside the Lower East Side squatting movement in the 1980s and ‘90s. It was a combination for me of two key concerns, downtown NYC art and squatting. (I blog elsewhere on the latter – “Occupations & Properties” at blogspot.com.) I drew the title of my talk from my book, Occupation Culture (2015; URL of free PDF online).
“Squat art” (such as it was) was presaged by the radical (in different ways) art places of ABC No Rio, the Rivington School, and the Garden of Eden.
Bullet Space opened a gallery in a squatted building under the direction of Andrew Castrucci, which showed art in a more normative manner. Bullet is best known for a series of posters, and a broadsheet polemic for squatting – “Your House Is Mine”. The noise musician and muralist Peter Missing and his bandmates ‘terrorized’ East Village yuppies with aggressive graffiti. Seth Tobocman and friends started the political graphic magazine World War 3 Illustrated, which supported the LES squatters. Tobocman later joined the movement himself, and produced an epic graphic novel, War in the Neighborhood (2000).
Poster by Fly-O
Unusual as a prominent woman in the movement, Fly-O was an enthusiastic squatter and punk musician. A prolific zine-maker, she became a kind of vernacular historian of the movement. In recent years, mainstream institutions as well as ABC No Rio and the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) have presented exhibitions on the squatting movement in NYC.
Tag Team for the Queer Community
Gavin Butts (Northumbria U), author of No Machos or Pop Stars (2022), a book on post-punk in Leeds, UK, reviewed early ‘70s queer culture and its study, that is, before the emergence of mainstream gay culture.
He paraded Jackie Curtis as “a figure of queer counter-publicness”, with her hair backlit in a classic Hollywood-style studio photo; described the Shirley Clarke movie, Portrait of Jason – (ABC No Rio’s own Jack Waters starred in a recent remake) – and Jayne County’s days with the Ridiculous Theatre. Formerly Wayne (the county wherein is Detroit), she asked: “Are you man enough to be a woman?”
I didn’t know about the queer use of what was called “wrecking” drag – or “scare” drag in NYC – a transvestite outfit that contained at least one element of gender-appropriate attire. Apparently there were laws in some U.S. jurisdictions, like the sumptuary laws of medieval times, that required men and women to dress according to their gender. (Now only workplaces can require that.) I was reminded of Penny Arcade’s insistence that art and crime go together. She – aka Susanna Ventura – also acted as a teen in the Ridiculous Theatre.
Butts noted that in 1972-73 glam rock broke public queerness with albums like Lou Reed’s “Transformer” and David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”. He cited a text by Will Straw (1995) on the concept of scene as a model for academic research on pop music.
Hot Peaches in Wonderland
David Getsy (U of Virginia) picked up the theme. (He has written on Stephen Varble, and will soon publish on Scott Burton.) He lamented that “homonormativity and transphobia” became the new mass culture of gayness. 1973 was a key year for the gay movement, with the delisting of gayness as a psychiatric disorder. Getsy focussed on the Hot Peaches street theater group which produced a version of Alice in 1973 in which “wonderland” is the gay trans underground.
Hot Peaches trouupe, from Facebook
The work was directed at a gay audience, albeit performed at least once at the antique bur-lee-Q venue Sammy’s Bowery Follies. Author Jimmy Camicia lived in Berlin in the 1960s, and was impressed by German gay culture. His Alice used a “subcultural dialect” – heterosexuals would find it hard to follow the dialogue.
Camicia said, “Children can never play gay games, so I want us to do that.” The piece celebrated the underground as the heart of queer NYC. Very little video of the group survives. Getsy played a clip of a queen declaring: “New York is quite different than wherever you came from”.
Roll Call of the Black Avant-Garde
Cynthia Oliver (U of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) read the names of black dancers in a theatrical recitative “roll call”. One among them was Rudy Perez who worked with the Judson Dance Theatre. (I wrote about his work in ‘75.) Oliver cited Richard Schechner long-time editor of TDR on the “conservative avant-garde” (was he writing on it, or was he of it? I think the latter).
Herself a dancer and choreographer, Oliver was following questions posed at a recent Schomburg Library conference – “When did the avant-garde become black?” and “Does abstraction belong to white people?” These questions arise from the perception of modernism as a variant species of colonialism.
‘I Don’t Like You, but I Need You’
(A bit out of sequence here) James Boaden (U of York) and Johanna Gosse (U of Idaho) headed a workshop on “Poor Relations and Intimate Antagonisms”. They rolled over some interesting territory, such as how the “curatorial narrative” of the downtown NYC scene evolved, in shows like “Mixed Use Manhattan” (at Reina Sofia, Madrid), and “Pioneers of the Downtown Scene” (at the Barbican, London). The theme of those shows was “buck up and do it in an age of austerity.”
I’d question how austere the NYC ‘70s was for artists in a period of low rents, liberal government subsidy, and a smaller progressive art community. For me, in the last half of that decade, it seemed like pretty warm water. Oh, yeah, the subways were dirty and property tax revenue was low. Que pena, but not for us.
Said Gosse: To ignore antagonisms leads to a “bloodless” history. She was talking about artistic antagonisms, using as examples the crankiness of Ray Johnson, and the art that both Carolee Schneeman and Hannah Wilke made about their breakups and sex partners. As historians, she said, we should “own our prurience… our desire to know and to see”. She cited Joan W. Scott, “Evidence of Experience” – to deny antagonisms is to reaffirm the “smooth neoliberal order”.
Actually, my first boss John Coplans, learned me that the artworld was a field of warfare. As a one-time colonial soldier, I think he knew the neoliberal order is anything but smooth.
The methodological challenge the workshop posed is to navigate and acknowledge the uneven archival field – what archives get saved (and are accessible), and who is still alive to tell about past times.
Of course, there is also the question of who and what is consistently looked away from, in particular the upsurge of activist institutional critique of the affect and depradations of the American empire. But what people might all the time be upset about is not normally on the agenda.
I didn’t crank about politics and blithely ignorant attitudes during the workshop. I only recalled from my experience as reasons for instances of antagonism among artists were withholding of important career information (curators and dealers making visits, looking for x or y, etc.), exclusion from important exhibitions, and acting within institutional circles as the sole representative of a collective project.
Here’s hoping that with the vastly expanded field of artistic action, the sorts of antagonisms that arise between the different active positions within the artworld are somehow softening around the edges. Maybe a critic or a curator doesn’t have to be the artist’s natural enemy any more.
Who Are You to…
I also didn’t crank about artists who resent scholars making a career out of their work when they remain poor, or simply pumping them for info about the famous people they knew. To which I might add from my experience with the SqEK group of scholars who study squatters, the resentment of those activist ‘subjects’ who are quizzed by scholars who then publish their findings in inaccessible academic journals.
My own related personal gripe is students who ask for info then don’t share their final work. Some artists I know won’t talk to them. Research is a transaction. People aren’t that in love with hearing themselves talk to strangers.
Someone said, “I’m not interesting enough to be a historical subject.” I think that’s false modesty. As a historian studying, learning and writing your stories, you are a subject, whether you believe it or not, and will be seen as such by those coming after.
For many of the scholars at this conference, the Fales collection at NYU library has been a basic resource. In the end, the peops from NYU talked – Lynn Gumpert (Grey Art Gallery, NYU) and Nicholas Martin (Fales Library, NYU) – about their institution, its pasts and its plans. (Martin is a curator of arts and humanities, and manages some galleries.) Of the definitive “Downtown Show” (2007?) with its catalogue and useful website, the question for Gumpert was, “How do you present something so anti-institutional?” In the end, curator Carlo McCormick came up with the narrative structure of the show.
NYU has had a recent gift of some 200 downtown works, and they’ll build a study center in Fall of ‘24. To a question about their acquisitions policy, Martin said, “We don’t have to go looking.”
I asked what is their relation to the autonomous archives that have arisen recently. I’ve seen that the MoRUS storefront on the LES has been full of NYU student volunteers over the years, and school groups regularly visit the Interference Archive in Brooklyn. Said Martin, “The more the merrier, so that things don’t end up in the dumpster.” I had hoped he would say they want to work with them.
Marvin Taylor, the primary assembler of the current collection and its vision, was venerated. (I know that Ron Kolm, who was early on the scene at Fales with shopping bags full of small press books, gave Taylor a good strong push.)
Marci Kwon said that Taylor’s was the first class she took at NYU, so David Wojnarowicz shaped her view of art history. Buenos noches, modernismo!
In the next and last of this series of posts on the London conference, I’ll report on talks devoted to artists’ television and video art, including a look at the one-season wonder of the "Willoughby Sharp Show", VJing in Danceteria's Congo Bill VIP lounge, Glenn O’Brien, Dara Birnbaum and more.
Monday, August 29, 2022
Talking NYC in London: Post #4, “Hard Line Brainstorm”
On the second day of the symposium I actually made it on time for the breakfast rolls.
Natalie Phillips (Ball State U) rolled out an iconographic analysis on the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, something rather obvious which I’ve never seen performed. He was a kind of transcriber – every one of his images comes from another source, so Phillips hunted for his sources. Her book will have three chapters, one on catalogues, indices, etc., another on graffiti, and the third on the body.
Basquiat questions the biases of catalogues. This got a little obscure, but Phillips tracks the repetitive series of numbers on some works to music catalogues of different jazz artists, both white and black. As I understood it, Basquiat was evidencing the industrial racism of the music business in the form of their own codes.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
“I argue he never gave up graffiti,” she said. (Basquiat’s relationships with graffiti artists was explored in a recent show at MFA in Boston [link below]. It has been averred that J-MB couldn’t acknowledge his friendships and connections with graf artists at the time without imperiling his delicate position as an accepted high artist.)
Phillips reads the painting Victor 25448 as a reflection on the death of Michael Stewart. (The well-known work made on Keith Haring’s wall and shown recently at the Guggenheim NYC was a reaction to the killing.) Stewart was rousted by police for writing in the subway late at night, hogtied and suffocated. He was not a graffiti artist, but, Phillips contends, a ‘toy’, or wannabe novice writer. Ergo, the broken brown body in the painting is labelled as a toy: “Ideal”.
In the Warhol-Basquiat-Clemente collaborations there is one in which Basquiat paints over Clemente entirely. This Phillips says, signifies dominance of the “king” over another writer.
The New Excluded
Curiously, the mention of Clemente was the only time the name of a neoexpressionist painter, one among the market leaders of the 1980s artworld, came up during this symposium. I thought that curious for a gathering of art historians, although the cultural studies-ish focus of these days’ talks was fine by me. But it means things have changed. In my time, professors explained to me that the principal sponsor of this symposium, the Terra Foundation, was “object oriented”, so I could forget about applying to them for support.
Perhaps in the wholesale return to figuration, artists of those days unwittingly reduced themselves to illustrators of the texts of a different kind of discourse. (What? Please explain; no you explain.) Or perhaps the next turn in scholarly fashion simply hasn’t creaked into motion. I do recall someone told me she wants to work on Richard Hambleton.
Return to the Text
Andrew Strombeck (Wright State U), author of DIY on the Lower East Side: Books, Buildings, and Art after the 1975 Fiscal Crisis (2020), Skyped in to maintain that David Wojnarowicz’s writing was already about nostalgia – for the 1970s. He wrote about precarious people, Strombeck said, who “would make it onto the page only marginally”.
I instantly thought of the key work in the video program I put together for the Wojnarowicz show in Madrid in ‘19, the video document of a performance of his “Sounds in the Distance” text which took place in Bill Rice’s backyard. Woj did his time on the road, like many of his generation, and unlike most also plunged into the life of the street. The lumpen precarious included his younger self. The book “Sounds” is a record of some of his meetings.
As I understood Strombeck, downtown writing more broadly is “concerned with how to manage these people”. Again, as in the earlier discussion on ‘ventriloquism’ [in post #3 on the London conference], are these the people who don’t, won’t, can’t speak for themselves?, or simply aren’t heard?
On the Road and in the Commune
I think North Americans hang on to a nomadism, what used to be called a ‘pioneer spirit’ – a dissatisfaction with the familiar, a chance of adventure, of betterment, or simple curiosity. All of this drives people to the road. And even, finally, to chance the Big Apple.
A sense of responsibility for others sharing one’s life space reflects the collective nature of most of the significant downtown creative projects, the “safety in numbers”, “we’re in it together” spirit of the epoch. As well as DIY, it was and still is, and maybe even more now, DIT – do-it-together.
I’ll leave aside Strombeck’s theoretical rabbit-hole, the notion of “interpretive delirium”, as per Michel de Certeau’s discussion of the moment in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) when he discovers the footprint on the beach. Academics love these asides.
"It's Your Fault"
I was struck by his provocation that, “By depicting the Lower East Side as a decadent landscape you [meaning LES wrtiers] reinforce the city commissioner’s view of it as a dead zone needing erasing.”
In these terms Strombeck discussed Catherine Texier’s Love Me Tender (1987), a novel about a young dancer working in a strip joint and her several lovers. Texier apparently writes that the cities are full of useless zombies, just like the elites said. (Maybe why Penguin published that emigre French romantic author?) Less convincingly, Strombeck indicts the indie magazine Redtape’s “Cracked Mirror” issue, with its multiple contributors in the same brief.
In my view, the abandoned styles of living in a busted-up proletarian multi-ethnic neighborhood licensed bad behaviors by artists from middle class backgrounds. What have artists to do with the heavenly motions of big capital which presage an impending doom of their bohemian utopia? Drunkenness can lead to double consciousness as easily as double vision. NYCers, I think, have always been fatalistic about the big monkies who swing in the realms high above them. At least they don’t mis-identify the piss that rains down below as rain.
Who’s to Blame for Negative Urban Outcomes?
Strombeck also cited the late critic Craig Owens, that the “art galleries capitalize on ideas of risk and danger”. Literary artists, he seemed to argue, were as much compradors in gentrification as the artists whose gallery infrastructure enabled by landlords actually effected it.
This is an old canard, which enraged critics Walter Robinson and Carlo McCormick at the time. The article by Craig Owens which Strombeck cites follows directly that pair’s huge takeout on the East Village art scene in Art in America, in essence arguing that the artists were all guilty. Gregory Sholette fretted that all the political artwork in the Owens piece was uncredited.
For me, the come-to-Grundrisse Marxists of the haute theorie crowd mostly ignored the vigorous activism that was contesting the bleak situations they so glumly described. Both on home ground, and near abroad, they could have pitched in on organizing a good deal more. Even then, had everyone put their queer shoulders to the wheel, it’s hard to imagine the heavenly motions could have been much slowed. (By “motions” I allude not to old Yahweh, but rather to the gods of Greek colonists and mercenaries.)
Finally, this is a book I have to read. In the pre-text Strombeck writes that NYC’s 1975 fiscal crisis [is] now recognized as a template for the austerity politics of the past four decades, and he “directly considers the era’s aesthetic production in terms of the crisis”. It sounds like a synthetic doxa for left cultural studies of the period.
“Hard Line Brainstorm”
Felix Vogel (U of Kassel) spoke on the Art & Language group in the mid-’70s. He moved off a text by Corrine Robbins in a 1976 issue of the Soho Weekly News, “Go Marxist or Move to Texas” (odd, A&L historian Michael Corris eventually did – although he certainly remained Marxist!).
Vogel read Mel Ramsden’s unpublished text “Hard Line Brainstorm” (1975, unpublished; estate of Sarah Charlesworth) where Ramsden writes, “the means of authority ‘stand above’ [artistic] production”, leading artists to a “passive vulnerability” to manipulation.
Mel Ramsden was probably the sharpest analyst in that crowd. I recall Anna Chave opening our eyes to the not-so-quiet political subtexts in Minimal art through a Ramsden text in The Fox.
Vogel reported Zoran Popovic’s 1976 A&L-based film Struggle in New York for its critique of the newly launched art center P.S. 1 – “if P.S. 1 is an alternative, why does it pose no threat to the ruling class?” It is simply “hiding the real working class community and replacing it with artists”. (The film’s script was published in 2020.)
I think that’s a little hard on Alanna Heiss. It was precisely her ‘in’ with the elites on her board (like Brendan Gill) that enabled her to colonize so much vacant property with adventurous artists. The initial residency program put scores of international artists into studios there, seeding a new “loose collection of international vagabonds”, as Vogel described Soho. Unlike Charlotte Moorman’s, Heiss’s was an authoritarian project, but she was at least a philosopher queen.
Finally, Vogel believes his research into the A&L-to-AMCC continuum of the mid-1970s, the period of the deflation of the anti-Vietnam war movement, can help define the “locally specific relationship between art and politics” of this time. That could be helpful.
I’d like to see the era of Pattern & Decoration painting in NYC look like something besides expatriate commie tourists kicking cans around the basement of the Empire.
Whispers about Vietnam
Catherine Quan Damman (NYU) spoke about the overlooked work of Anthony Ramos, “About Media” (1977). Ramos was a student of Allan Kaprow at Cal Arts who did time in prison as a conscientious objector (CO) during the Vietnam War. His work concerned President Jimmy Carter’s post-war pardon of Vietnam War draft resisters.
Damman spoke about the black artist’s reputation for honesty and authenticity, and the “labor of authorial construction”. Unfortunately, the room was stifling, the fans were whirring, and despite our pleas the speaker could scarcely be heard.
I also have few notes for Jeannine Tang’s (New School) talk on Julie Tolentino, lesbian cult performer and principal motivator of a venue called the Clit Club. I confess that, though I love the name, I never went; nor might I have been allowed in if I had. WOW (Women’s One World) cafe and Dixon Place were as far as I went, and mostly to see Diane Torr.
I noted the cool-looking figural calendar, and the curious affective questionnaire sent to people involved with the Clit Club – how did it smell? What did you wear? Issues Tang was concerned with included performance art in a context of mutual disaffection, and how art history recognizes friendship.
Tellus: The Cassette Magazine
Joseph Nechvatal, my old comrade from Colab days, did an hour-long “listening session” drawn from the archive of the Tellus audio magazine project. Nechvatal DJ’d from his laptop; the entire run of the cassette journal are online at Ubuweb.net.
He told how he got into this. “The [Sony] Walkman really did it for me. You could have your own private soundtrack of the city.” Cassette tape was already part of the mail art scene, being sent around.
As he played the selections, Nechvatal made wry comments on the sound art and music scene of the day. He played an early Lamonte Young piece, the Dia Foundation-supported musician for whom he worked for a time. Of the No Wave selections he said, “if you knew how to play an instrument it was held against you”. He played “noise scapes”, and a work by Julius Eastman who “slows it to a heroin pace”.
The later issues of Tellus threw a wider net. “We got bored with downtown, so we went international…. New York is a port, a place of fluidity…. It’s a mental space of networks.”
New York, Our Time
Having missed the first screening, I caught the second by Vivienne Dick, of her 2020 film New York, Our Time. For this project she hunted up old friends from her days in the city in the late ‘70s. They spoke with her in relaxed conversation about their lives then and now – “like a sandwich of time”. Lydia Lunch did a kind of performative set piece: “This is to the ghosts.”
She also talked to some of her friend’s children: “You can’t live alone” in NYC today, said one, because of the expense of rent. “Neoliberal New York is unbearable.”
The film had a very relaxed femisocial feeling, like kitchen table conversation. It was anti-documentary; despite that some of her conversants are known figures, they aren’t identified. They were all friends, not this one and that one. Vivienne has a great still listening style. Her friend Andrew, who I met in Madrid later, said that was due to “spiritual training”.
I dug seeing Dick’s short takes of the period, dressing up to go out nightclubbing. Of her film, she said, “It’s kind of ethnographic, except I’m in it.”
Somehow it’s hard to grasp New York, Our Time. The film is so quiet, ruminative, and largely undeclarative about things one somehow wants to shout about. In a way, the informality of it defeats opinion.
“I like to get that kind of feel to the film, that it is just messing around,” Dick said. “Years ago, in New York when I saw quite a lot of American independent film, I was very impressed with some of the work I saw that was just like that. People playing around with the camera, making like films in their kitchen. That really grabbed me.” (Dick to McCann, 2022)
NEXT: Tish & Snooky's hair dye empire, queer counter-publics and homonormativity, roll call of black dancers, and a chicken wearing trousers.
Boston MFA show, "Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation" October 18, 2020–July 25, 2021
On the lesser known of Basquiat’s celebrity collaborations, one might look up – Susanne Kleine, Ménage à trois: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente (2012); preface by Robert Fleck and interviews by Dieter Buchhart with Bruno Bishofberger, Tony Shafrazi and Francesco Clemente. In which the living get the last word.
Allen Frame, Kirsten Bates, et al., “Sounds in the Distance”; performance document based on David Wojnarowicz’ text
1984 | 00:38:00 | United States | English | Color | Stereo | 4:3 | 3/4" U-matic
Marc H. Miller, “Redtape Magazine, 1982-1992”, Dec 6, 2017
Nina Kennedy, “Remembrances of the Clit Club”, April 10, 2021
Julie Tolentino Wins 2020 Queer|Art|Prize for Sustained Achievement
Ruairí McCann, “New York Our Time—An Interview with Vivienne Dick”, February 2022
Still from Vivienne Dick's New York Our Time
Saturday, August 20, 2022
Talking NYC in London: Post #3, “Mystical Persuasion”
On the second day of the Approaching Downtown symposium, Saisha Grayson (Smithsonian American Art Museum) spoke on Charlotte Moorman and the annual Avant-Garde Festival as a “free eruption of artists happenings”. This annual gathering put the “neo” in neo-avantgarde during the decades of the 1960s and ‘70s. Famous as the topless cellist who played Nam June Paik’s bizarre “TV Cello”, an instrument constructed of small video monitors, the festivals were Moorman’s babies.
Moorman, Grayson said, has seemingly “mystical powers of persuasion” on government bureaucrats, to get them to go along with her plans. These very outre events took place in large public venues with a multitudinous cast of artists doing curious things. Artists of the international Fluxus movement were heavily represented.
A photo Grayson showed of a big technology-centered Avant Garde Festival held in the Armory looked amazing. Advanced artists of all kinds had a long leash during the 1960s. Perhaps they represented modernity itself, which no one in power, irrespective of their politics, could be seen to oppose. I asked if these productions in NYC influenced similar events in Latin America? Before 1968, a series of remarkable festivals were held there, extraordinary effulgences which one would think the new dictatorships would be inclined to repress. After 1968 they did so.
Women Make Art Communities
Grayson tracks the later NYC public art initiatives Creative Time and Alanna Heiss’s Institute of Art & Urban Resources, which ran P.S. 1 and the Clocktower, directly out of Moorman’s Avant-Garde festivals. That Charlotte is forgotten (?) she ascribes to the “gender dismissal” of the women who “created the avant-garde community”. (This was a consistent theme in this conference.)
Alanna Heiss herself once cited the example of the London Art Labs for her IAUR projects. The AVG fests were closely involved with Fluxus, which was not in good odor among “serious people” in NYC in the ‘70s. In any event, like P.S. 1 with its early residencies, the AVG fests were always very international affairs.
The AVG fests were DIY, run by volunteers. Grayson noted the impact that the streams of corporate funding in the 1980s had on the “art ecology” of downtown NYC. New corporate-centric models of art organization superseded Charlotte’s “love-run always collective anti-curatorial anti-authoritarian model”.
Creative Time's "Art on the Beach" project, 1982; Scott Pfaffman's multiple rocket-shaped barbeque pits are featured on the landfill that today houses Battery Park City
Is it too much to call the clampdown of bureaucratic procedures on the loose dogs of art in NYC and in South America (aka, Rockefeller-land) during the ‘70s and ‘80s part of an American (south and north) fascist revival? Nixon time, Reagan time, Clinton time. Maybe not, if “mystical powers” are ascribed to an important animateur of earlier times. That means, ‘we don’t know how she did it, nor how someone like her could do that kind of thing today’.
The state of dominance of private capital over public goods everywhere and every time which we call ‘neoliberalism’ (although too many pretend they don’t know what that means), is the global achievement of today’s soft authoritarianism.
Running and Hiding
Still from Helio Oiticica's "Cosmococa" film project in NYC's Wall Street district
Anne-Grit Becker (Humboldt U, Berlin) presented on work by “Helio Oiticica in exile”. The artist fled to NYC to escape the Brazilian dictatorship. Although he was known, and had shown Nests (Ninhos) at MoMA in 1970, he found it hard to connect. He considered the NYC art scene to be reactionary.
Oiticica lived at 81 2nd Avenue. In the event, he did find collaborators. He shot film with Mario Montez, a drag queen who also worked with Jack Smith and Jackie Curtis at La Mama. The strange film he shot around Wall Street he called “Cosmococa”, one among his "quase-cinema" projects which were not shown publicly. Becker said Oiticica used a collaborative production strategy he called “chance-play”.
Oiticica was a great enthusiast of cocaine, and used lines of the powder in photo collages. Perhaps the paranoia noted as an effect of that drug heightened his hermit-like posture.
Brazil in the ‘60s was renowned for the expansive inventive art and music movement called Tropicalia. The production of extravagant feature films was an important part of it. Becker mentioned a film by Oiticica collaborator Neville D’Almedia, called Mangue-Bangue, which shows how that took a turn under repression.
After long obscurity, this film is now in the MoMA which describes it thus:
“Shot in 1970 in Mangue, Rio de Janeiro’s poorest red-light district, and the city’s financial district, Neville D’Almeida’s Mangue-Bangue, presents a portrait of the ‘normality’ of marginalized and criminalized bodies during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Introducing humorous or odd figures in place of the heroic, revolutionary male protagonist and confronting the spectator with explicit scenes of genitalia, defecation, and drug use, the film was never released… until it reappeared in the Collection of MoMA in 2006.”
Tough luck MoMA doesn’t have a streaming channel.
The Yours/Mine WTF? Hour
The late morning was taken up with a workshop on appropriation. It was a rather sprawling, amorphous activity with speakers part presencial and part virtual, plus an online part, on an app called MURAL.
I was still somewhat buzzed on all the Charlotte Moorman talk, and so expecting the unexpected, the discontinuous and the notionally disruptive. Pipes were banging around outside the lecture room as workers moved them around. Serendipitous echoes of Yoshi Wada – “Riffs and Relations”.
The workshop presenters used the MURAL platform, an online bulletin board, to create a diagram of appropriations. With a sudden new learning curve, and a subject not dear to me I did not participate. But the discussion was interesting, and fortunately did not head back to the market leaders of the period’s neo-pop concept painting.
Book in Black
Leah Pinese (U of Chicago) and Abbe Schriber (U of South Carolina) spoke first on African-American artists and the European modernist tradition, specifically the question, or accusation of “belatedness or derivativeness” directed at African-American artists.
I’d supposed the upsurge of neglected black artists in shows like “Soul Nation” at the Whitney had put paid to this conceit, but categorizing and boundary policing are key operations of racism, both conscious and unconscious. Moreover the fortresses of art theory were meticulously constructed in the 1960s and ‘70s in a relatively unwoke period, and their ruins must still be clambered over.
A key example given for us to discuss was Glenn Ligon’s 1991-93 “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” of photos of nudes by Robert Mapplethorpe, a very ‘meta’ exhibition of the photos together with Ligon’s notes – a black artist commenting on a white artist’s picturing black male bodies.
David Getsy, who spoke later on gay theater, said that “Appropriation brings a moralism with it, a moral question is attached to it” – appropriation operates across an unequal power dynamic.
Back in Print
Two feminist publication projects were discussed. Eau de Cologne, art dealer Monik Strueth’s German feminist magazine. And Heresies, of course, the submarine of radical feminist art influence. Surprised to learn that it started out zine-like, a cut-and-paste job until a typographer joined the “mother collective”.
The presenters showed pages from the 1982 issue #14 by women of color; #8 was an issue of Third World women. I’m glad this important early politically-attuned journal is getting attention.
Aside: A Chat with Lynne
I had a chance to buttonhole Lynne Gumpert of the NYU Grey Gallery about a bee in my bonnet when I was writing my memoir [Art Worker, JoAAP 2022]. That was the strange event from 1981, the decision to drop Colab from the “Events” show at the New Mueum. Lynne worked there then, and has written that Colab pulled out. When I finally queried her on this, she said she didn’t remember it. She was probably just writing what Marcia Tucker was saying then. “She was mercurial.”
Finally, I’m guessing that Marcia Tucker figured she already had most of the artists she was interested in participating in the Fashion Moda show, so why mess with Colab? So she manufactured her own excuses not to try to work with the assembly, and all those insignificant weirdos.
Lynne also said Marcia Tucker wrote a much more extensive memoir than the one that was published ( A Short Life of Trouble: 40 Years in the New York Art World, 2010). The longer ms. is in her papers at the Getty. Maybe she wrote what she thought about Colab, among other things.
Why this matters to me is it set a pattern: When the most adventurous of NYC art institutions would not deal with a populist group like Colab, finally nobody else would either. To this day.
Somone spoke on the “archive effect”, as a kind of ventriloquism, a ‘speaking-for’ others. (The reference was to a book I don’t know, which “examines the problems of representation inherent in the appropriation of archival film and video footage for historical purposes”.)
Okay, complex, sure, but if historians and documentarians do not speak for cultural producers who do not or cannot speak for themselves, no one will. Odd objects in the flea market, severed from their roots, are mute on their back stories. While history classically favors the period document, hedge against the revisionism of late-life memory, the floodgates of popular historicizing have been thrown open by social media, which allows nostalgists worldwide to indulge themselves fully.
Personal testimony on all phases and kinds of cultural production is available as never before. Do academics dare to use it?
As for that ‘archive effect’ – I think a ‘speaking-for’ is the historian’s job. For me, working contemporary, I’ve tried my whole career to improve my listening. I hope I’ve gotten better, so that finally, my ‘speaking-for’ is not ‘speaking-over’ the actors and participants themselves.
Along the way, someone mentioned a book on Chinese copiest painters in the artists’ village, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade. That’s the industrialization of appropriation; it sounds fascinating.
NEXT: Jean-Michel’s iconography; collective production, scene or star?; and Mel Ramsden’s “Hard Line Brainstorm”…
Documents of the 4th & 7th Annual New York Avant Garde Festivals
by Jud Yalkut, important video/film documentor of the period
Gonzalo Aguilar, “Nota sobre Helio Oiticica y Mario Montez”
For the milieu in which Oiticia moved during those years, see also:
Juan Antonio Suárez, “Xcentric 2017: Nuevos Narciosos despues de Cocteau: Las fiestas lisergicas de Jose Rodriguez Soltero – sobre el Lower East Side puertorriqueño y el underground queer
MoMA note on Neville D’Almeida’s Mangue-Bangue:
Heresies Magazine Collection
Heresies was a feminist journal published from 1977 to 1992 in New York. The Heresies Collective was a group of feminist artists who brought their different perspectives to the revolutionary New York art scene of the 1970s.
Saturday, August 13, 2022
Talking NYC in London, Post #2: Harlem, Free Jazz Space, and Club Kids
This is the 2nd in a series of posts about the “Approaching Downtown” symposium at the Courtauld Institute, London, in mid-July. It is drawn from my notes of a remarkable several days of talk about the late 20th century art and culture of downtown NYC. Today was the day to unpack some of the aspects of downtown NYC which were overlooked by mainstream media at the time – which was, in truth, a major theme of this gathering.
Among the more welcome discoveries in the talks for me was a presentation by Amy Tobin (U of Cambridge) on the work of Candace Hill-Montgomery. She was one among a handful of black artists who participated in our group Colab’s watershed 1980 Times Square Show. She collaborated on the room dedicated to the notorious 1968 police murder of Fred Hampton. Hill-Montgomery also exhibited a blowup of the famous horrific photo of a chained-up black victim of KKK murder, a work she called “Unknown Relative”. The artists who worked on the Hampton installation were Hill-Montgomery, David Hammons, Bill Stephens and Angela Fremont. At that moment in 1980, the case against the Chicago police officers who assassinated Fred Hampton was being reopened.
Recently the charismatic Black Panther leader and the informant who helped the police set up the killing have become the subject of a Hollywood movie.
Tobin showed Hill-Montgomery’s “Reflections on Vacancy”, a work in Harlem in which she put mylar sheets over empty windows in a vacant building, then followed their decay in an on-site process installation.
There are no photos online of this work for me to grab. Tobin is recovering an artist who has long remained in the shadows. Even the Times Square Show installation, while it’s often mentioned is not imaged online. It was a chaotic environment, difficult to snap.
Fashion Moda in the South Bronx
Tobin pulled her images from the Fashion Moda artists’ file at Fales Library’s Fashion Moda papers. That’s the underknown South Bronx art project space opened by Stefan Eins with Joe Lewis in 1978. CH-M’s work at Fashion Moda was in the large street-level display window. She was “thinking about the death of young people in the neighborhood”.
Candace Hill-Montgomery's installation at Artists Space
In those archives Tobin found a photo of Hill-Mongomery’s “Black and White Enclosure” (1979), a fence on a vacant lot enclosing an improbable parked boat. In her show at Artists Space, a white picket fence sits before a background mural of Harlem at night. These seem like understated ironic comments on the distance between devastated poor neighborhoods in NYC and the mostly white suburban enclaves that surround major cities throughout the USA.
Tobin spoke of the de facto segregation in the art world at the time which Hill-Mongomery and other black artists faced. Later in the symposium, during a virtual reading and talk event, CH-M said it was hard for her to get downtown to meetings and events because she was living uptown, working as a teacher and taking care of two children.
“Space Is Freedom”
Bentley Brown (NYU) talked about the world of his artist painter father, the black bohemia of jazz loft studios. He traced a line from the rent parties of Harlem days to the embrace of loft living as an aesthetic by avant garde jazz musicians.
Ornette Coleman purchased the first and third floor lofts at 131 Prince Street from George Maciunas, the famous Fluxus “developer”. Coleman opened Artists House there, a convivial site of musical improvisation. One visitor was enraptured by the scene, the habitues, the conversations – “I couldn’t believe someone lived like this.”
Kicked Out Like All the Rest
Brown told us that Coleman lost control of his Artists House loft spaces through processes that are still unclear. That same kind of mysterious loss happened to Steve Cannon of Tribes toward the end of his life. It happened to an entire building given over in the 1970s for public use to the CHARAS group at 7th Street and Avenue A which housed a free jazz improv space as its last vestige into the 1990s (as told by Fred Good to Clayton Patterson in CP’s 2007 compilation Resistance).
In tracking the places of jazz music, Brown showed a 1959 photo of a Coleman concert at the Five Spot taken by Bob Parent.
I knew Bob Parent in his day job as an art director for the Guardian indie left weekly. He told us that during his trips to Cuba they called him “Arbolito” because he had so many cameras hanging from him. I didn’t know his off-work job as a jazz photog.
Parent devised special diffused light equipment because he didn’t like to use a flash. He died suddenly, and his archive was in disarray; today it seems to have vanished.
Parent’s photo of the Five Spot shows a poster for a show by Ted Joans on the wall. We had a chance to see the remarkable Global Surrealism show at the Tate in London which included the enormous room-length “exquisite corpse” Ted Joans carried with him around the world, with a mix of poets, artists and musicians contributing to the collaboration.
Bentley Brown concluded his talk with the question: “Why don’t we allow black artists to be avant garde?” Why must they always be chained to the subject matter of their experiences?
In discussion, Colby Chamberlain (Cleveland Institute of Art) spoke on the exhibition that began the long-running alternative space, Exit Art. Jeanette Ingberman and her partner Papo Colo did the “Illegal America” show as their first show in their first space. (Exit Art had at least three incarnations.) I saw this show with my partner Becky Howland when we were running ABC No Rio. We were amazed to find the Real Estate Show occupation was among the venerable examples of transgressive art actions featured there.
Exit Art's "Illegal America" catalogue, with the dollar bill seal
Among the images Colby showed was our RES co-conspirator Peter Mönnig sitting in traffic inside a pickle barrel. Surely a classic, like a rodeo clown playing with the unconscious “bulls” of the roadway. Another of our partners in crime, Ann Messner was in that catalogue too, probably her film of stealing shirts at a department store sale.
Chamberlain worked at Exit Art with Jeanette Ingberman. He wrote on the Fluxhouse co-ops of George Maciunas. He presented later on day three on illegalisms in art.
“There’s an alternative history of Soho”, he said, a could-have-been. “Everyone was living within the pale of law.” This is part of the structure of feeling of downtown, of “constant precarity and exposure”. But getting along just fine, by adhering to unwritten rules and norms.
Bentley Brown commented, “Your delinquency is your survival.”
Workshop Your Feelings
Jennifer Doyle (U of Calif., Riverside) and Ricardo Montez (New School, NYC) jointly led a workshop called “A Geography in Solution: Downtown as a Structure of Feeling”. The term is from Raymond Williams, which Doyle said is much like the “sense of a scene”. [See note below]
She’s been closely involved for years with a Los Angeles art space called Human Resources, near Chinatown. It sounds like a classic experimental alternative space, with its own particular culture and, of course, a large accumulation of “art trash”. (At ABC No Rio we called that a “permanent collection”.)
Corey Fogel performing at Human Resources, Los Angeles
Mixed in with the process of historicization, i.e. writing histories, is what Doyle called the “chronopoetics of extractive capital”, a kind of retrospective FOMA, a feeling that “you’re always too late” on the scene.
Doyle spoke of the special “structure of feeling” around the Human Resources art space and its management, She’d been thinking to do a series of interviews with long-time participants. Some involved in the place were opposed to that project, seeing this as a violation of the culture of the place.
Hearing this, I was moved to cry out, “Don’t listen to them!”
Who and What Is “Downtown”?
Ricardo Montez worked on Nelson Sullivan, the videotista associated with the Alig-era “club kids”. Once on YouTube I watched his documentation of the flash mob party these flaming creatures instigated at the MacDonalds in Times Square. Nelson Sullivan “produced himself as downtown”, Montez said, like the perennial nightlife creature and columnist Michael Musto. (I noticed in NYC in May of ‘22 a print copy of a revivified Village Voice; Musto had a text in it.)
This was also a rare moment to gripe about the (by now stuffed) elephant in the room, the uninhabitability of NYC today and its gentrification, which can only be compared to a mountain top removal kind of strip mining, with its attendant devastating runoff and pollution.
We were reminded that the trans artist Tourmaline, who we’d seen earlier in a video dancing on the balcony of the Whitney, was among those who fought against the gentrification of the West Side piers when young queer people were fenced out.
Montez claimed that the Whitney Museum has “appropriated downtown”, citing the recent David Wojnarowicz show (which came to Madrid). Someone quoted Gary Indiana on the rapacious real estate practices of NYU, for which the staff of the Fales collection are ritually constrained to apologize. (I know of no book or article that describes these practices. Citation, please?)
I was reminded of Nick Zedd’s classic line when the Fales purchased his archive, and he moved to Mexico City – “NYU destroyed New York, but at least they paid me to leave town.”
NOTE on the “structure of feeling”:
* Stuart Hall defines the term further in Familiar Stranger (2017)> He learns the 'structure of feeling' through his diasporic experience, realizing that he does not share the English "habitus -- a way of life, forms of customary behavior, a structure of common sense, taken-for-granted assumptions, affective identifications and presuppositions about the society, and how things work" (p. 205-207), and therefore cannot work as a professor of English literature. This is both my advantage and my handicap vis a vis having lived the times under discussion in London. The knowledges I have are special and unshareable -- (although by now rather gummed over by decades of study of secondary material). At the same time, I cannot see from outside that nimbus of experiences to ask the questions and ken the relationships that matter for the moment in which an historical account will appear.
NEXT – “Art Gangs” continues with talks about Charlotte Moorman and the Avant Garde Festival, Helio Oiticica and Mario Montes, Heresies, and that old New Museum/Colab kerfuffle.
I couldn’t find a citation online for the 1980 reopening of the Fred Hampton murder case; only this precis of the early history of the case --
Images of the Times Square Show installations (without Candace Hill-Mongomery’s work, among many others)
Bob Parent, jazz photographer; as of 2019, the archive was in limbo…
Yuko Otomo, “Let’s get TEDucated! Tribute to Ted Joans”, June 2015
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