East Village USA
New Museum of Contemporary Art
Through March 19, 2005
Mobs of anxious East Village aficionados arrived by foot, bike, and taxi. Carlo McCormick was out front for a smoke break. I waited briefly before entering, to see who would show up. It was almost 20 years since my last East Village gallery opening. Now I watched as celebrity artists in leopard-skin unitards and fuzzy Afghan vests entered the gallery; if I looked closely I could detect these lionesses walking with slight arthritic limps. Blonde ponytails had faded to gray. Yet there they were, the royalty of the East Village scene: Mark Kostabi, Rick Prol, Karen Finley, Walter Robinson, Ronnie Cutrone, Dan Asher, and many others. This wasn’t the opening of East Village USA at the New Museum, but rather East Village ASU at B-Side Gallery, still in its original location on East Sixth Street. This effort by Prol and Jan Lynn Sokota represents a throw-back to the kind of controversial, self-promotional practices that gave the East Village its juice; namely, trying to stick its thumb in the eye of establishment officialdom while simultaneously riding its coattails to glory.
The New Museum’s East Village USA, as a reevaluation of this short though seminal period, is long overdue. Dan Cameron’s catalogue essay reads with the kind of dynamic sweep of a well-researched true crime mystery novel. The contributions of Liza Kirwin and Alan W. Moore add a sense of color and depth that make the catalogue a valuable document of this era. As Cameron’s closing statements made clear during the press preview, an untold toll was taken on this community by the AIDS epidemic. Many of its brightest lights were snuffed out by that plague. That, and the natural attrition of hard living, downtown bohemians makes this a timely and necessary exhibition. So perhaps in a sense, at least for the curators, East Village USA is a memorial not only for the friends and artists who were lost, but also to a simpler, less market driven moment in New York’s art saga.
Like the mythical Ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, curator Cameron begins the exhibit with what could be the antithetic premises of early and late East Village painting. The first, a Keith Haring from 1982, is a fluorescent sketch on metal that, though over 20 years old, is still vibrant enough to stop a freight train. Pictured is a large red dog-man, at once stepping on and turning up-side-down two small green “ginger bread” figures. A low horizon divides the canary yellow sky from the dappled red ground. The directness and fluency of the drawing captures the spontaneity of his subway scrawls that won him early recognition from performance-oriented critics. Like the East Village itself, the piece is garish, slapdash, aggressive, and impossible to ignore. The second, Philip Taaffe’s “Madam Torso in Deep,” is a study in refined decorative restraint. Repeated light gray shapes borrowed from Jean Arp and the Playboy bunny float over a sienna brown ground. The colors are a designer’s delight, and the clever art historical references encode the picture with what amounts to a hip-ness test for viewers. The traditionally stretched canvas and scale are in perfect accord with Greenbergian dictates. In short, a well formulated product of postmodernist theory, cunning insider allusions, and a brilliant marketing strategy.
The granddaddies of the East Village—CoLab, Fashion Moda, and Group Material—are featured in the first gallery. CoLab’s 1980 “Time Square Show” is seen as the first symptom of the artistic metastasis that became the East Village. “Symbolic Anatomy” (1980), a cast plaster figure, half skeleton, half black space suit, is the kind of mass produced “cheap” art Tom Otterness and CoLab produced in reaction to the luxurious Soho art commodity.
“Home of the Brave” (1982) by Keily Jenkins is a diorama depicting a lower middle class American living room contained within a Zenith TV, and it is a standout piece. As one of the Fun Gallery’s stars, Jenkins is an original talent who could not have emerged anywhere else. Patti Astor and Bill Stellings’s Fun Gallery was a catalyst in combining downtown punk angst, art student nerdy-ness and Graffiti writer bravado. Arch Connelly was a terrific, though under recognized artist, who along with Rhonda Zwillinger, exemplified a high point in East Village “Kitsch Art.” Connelly’s “Chip” (1982) looks like a tree stump from another dimension. The faux pearl and plastic jewel encrusted surface lends it a sense of preciousness, and its sculptural parody of an exotic end-table adds a surrealist flair. One faction of the Graffiti writers is represented with “throw-ups” by Crash, Zephyr and Futura 2000, and supplemented by major pieces by Lee Quinones, Crash, and Lady Pink. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s streetwise naïf drawings and Kenny Scharf’s large sci-fi cartoon extravaganza both drew inspiration from the Graffiti writers, but each subsequently developed in an individual direction. The history of Graffiti is yet to be written, and arguments could be made as to the significance of various writers vis a vis the actual criminal practice—but the Fun’s stable is at least a starting point in this investigation.
“Death Valley 69,” a music video by Richard Kern and Judith Barry for Sonic Youth’s 1985 hit, rates its own room. This punk bitch hissyfit features a snarling actress flogging giant switchblades, pump shotguns, and smart bombs. It exemplifies the theatrical rage that rises to an ecstasy of neurotic anger, which typified the anxiety of late punk.
A wall-sized comic altar by Rodney Allen Greenblat dominates the Gracie Mansion section. Its pastel shades contain a temple rotating in unison with a disco ball, churning windmills, interior lighting, and balanced text, contrasting words like “here, there” and “Practicality, Spirituality.” David Sandlin’s “Temptation Beneath the Pulaski Skyway” (1986) is a nocturnal fantasy of bizarre New Jersey debauchery. This scene of urban sprawl takes on a biblical dystopic feeling, as if residents under the elevated highway have uncovered the golden calf and begun an idolatrous cult worshiping roadside ads and shopping mall signs. Photos by Hujar and a large Stephen Lack bring us to the realm of Civilian Warfare.
Memory tends to cast images in a warm golden glow. East Village recollections gravitate rather towards the black and soot of tenement fires, a Ghetto Gothic. Several times over the course of writing this review, people whose opinions I respect have lamented the poor quality of so much of this work. Some have simply shuddered and mumbled, “creepy.” The East Village was not an artistic movement, an aesthetic, or a doctrine. It was a scene, inhabited by scenesters—some were artists, most weren’t. Sue Coe produced pieces that actually benefit from this environment. “The Money Temple” (1985) has all the sarcastic bite of George Grosz at his most vitriolic. A papier-mâché gymnast in a Plexiglas box performs a handstand with her legs bent backward to the floor. “Untitled (Acrobat)” (1984) seems an appropriate metaphor for Greer Lankton’s own contortions in self-creation. The rough finish and large hands and feet ironically balance the sculpture’s formal elegance and look of persevering grace on its face. David Wojnarowicz was one of the driving spirits of the scene: a poet, actor, activist, and mischief-maker, as well as an artist. In “The Death of American Spirituality” (1987), a multi-paneled painting, he depicts a vision of American cultural symbols in a state of conflict. A kachina doll radiates red veins that trail out to a cowboy riding a bull, a green Jesus, and a rotting skull with a rattlesnake in its teeth. Though neither of the works displayed are totally satisfying, they do leave one with a desire to see what Wojnarowicz might have done as a mature artist. With the advent of the Pat Hearn Gallery, Nature Morte, and International With Monument, a reassessment of sensibility takes place. The pieces become slicker, scale increases to echo the standards of Soho’s product line. From this point on, the East Village is seen as less important for its neighborhood nuances than as a low rent alternative to Soho and 57th Street.
Peter Schuyff and George Condo offer up a slightly cynical, funked-up version of late Surrealism. McDermott & McGough’s large yellow canvas is a jazzy rebus of gay epithets in hand-lettered Victorian characters, recalling Russian Constructivist works. If there is one factor beyond a shared admiration for French Deconstructionism uniting the works of Taaffe, Bickerton, Halley, Steinbach, Vaisman, and Koons, it would be their shallowness and superficiality. Representing the late phase of East Village art, they were obsessed with the immaculate surface, unsullied by human hands, and a marketing strategy just as cool. They represent an ironic overcompensation to earlier criticism East Village work as skuzzy, overwrought expressionism, and they played to a wider audience than the Lower East Side.
Upstairs, we’re treated to a photographic archive of the “Stars.” Perhaps in no other generation in history were the two tendencies of narcissism and celebrity worship so closely bound. Local paparazzi were more than accommodating in fulfilling their roles as recorders of the tribe and simultaneously supplying grist for the public relations blitz. Nera Leen’s famous 1950s Life photo of the “Irascibles” is parodied not once, but half a dozen times by trendy photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. He modeled East Village artists, dealers, and critics in the famous pose, but somehow diminished his imitations, rendering them in the category of a sideshow photo prop where people stick their heads through holes in cutouts of musclemen and belly dancers. He even appropriated an appropriation by repeating the same trick in Williamsburg in 2000. Other glamorous photos by Patrick McMullan and Tom Warren are staged portrait studies, reminding us how young everyone once was. Martha Cooper captured the action, and documented street life and Graffiti on trains, which all seems so quaint now.
The Lounge area is perhaps the most innovative feature of East Village USA. Tables and banquets are arranged club style, with several video monitors and projections going simultaneously. Art videos by Ann Magnuson, Tom Rubnitz, and Fiona Templeton, compete with straight ahead documentary tapes of Klaus Nomi, Ethyl Eichenberger, Frank Maya, and Lypsinka recorded in places like LaMama, Limbo Lounge, and P.S. 122. Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1962-63), as film and inspiration, is in this company unsurpassable. Unfortunately, the constant din makes it nearly impossible to concentrate on any individual piece.
A “Memorial Wall” is appropriately the last section. Curator Cameron has selected major works by some of the most talented East Village artists lost to AIDS. Martin Wong’s “African Temple 9th Street” (1985) is a large picture that portrays the three things that were essential to his painting: crumbling brick, painted signs and language, and the people who inhabited his neighborhood. Nicolas Moufarrege, an early champion of the East Village as an artistic entity, also employed the unique practice of needlepoint. “The Fifth Day” (1980) is perhaps one of his major works in this medium, picturing a nude male preparing to hurl a golden ball at a buzzard flying in a cloud-filled sky. The brilliant colors of the thread seem to glisten in the light, and the rich texture of the brocade makes it clear why tapestries are so highly valued.
Are there gaping holes in East Village USA? Yes! How could you not have major pieces by Mark Kostabi, Rick Prol, Rhonda Zwillinger, AVANT, and a whole host of others? Were celebrity artists only peripherally connected to the East Village scene thrown in to boost visibility? No doubt. But curators who have their own visions have to deal with the artifacts and documents that are available. To insure their fiscal survival, institutions must remain blind to the ones who dug the deepest, risked the most, played the game with the most abandon, and offended the most people. They were the ones who were everywhere, and they won’t leave behind foundations with their names on them. Is every one happy this show finally happened? Pretty much. I guess you just had to be there.