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Art: A Time to Remember

The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984 (Princeton University Press, 2005)

In October 1975, New York, hopelessly mired in bankruptcy, got down on bended knee and in uncharacteristic humility, begged the Feds for help. Ron Nessen, Gerald Ford’s press secretary, snidely countered by comparing the city to a drug abusing child—“You don’t give her a hundred dollars a day to support her habit”—leading to the now-infamous Daily News headline: “Ford To City: Drop Dead.” The financial crisis left a burnt-out, graffiti’ed, messed-up, drug-infested, weed-strewn city with barely functioning ratty, clattering subways. But, on the bright side, there were lots and lots of boarded-up, abandoned buildings, and the artists swooped in and partied like there was no tomorrow.

The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, has spawned The Downtown Book, a pastiche of essays and photographs of the 400-plus art pieces on view at Grey Art Gallery. The book is a looker, sporting gritty black, white, grey and red motifs. The back of the book contains a smart chronology of the years 1973-1984 which would have worked better in the front. Broken into three side-by-side columns titled “Arrivals and Departures” (“Summer 1978—Madonna arrives in NY”), “Events” (“1979 Whitney Biennial opens with work by Susan Rothenberg and first ever films”), and “Politics and History” (“Jim Jones, leader of Jonestown, orders his followers to drink cyanide-laced Kool Aide”), it gives a thematic coherence to such a sprawling subject. Lynn Gumpert’s forward is cogent, and subsequent chapters examine the downtown music scene, art world, performances, cinema, writing and criticism. Having anti-minimalist starlets like Ann Magnuson, Chi Chi Valenti, Lydia Lunch, Sur Rodney (Sur), Gracie Mansion and Martha Wilson speak for themselves is savvy and necessary. At times some chapters wear thin and either become a guest list of names or dribble into stultifying term-paper lingo, like “the sickness of motion-even of motion-in-place is the result of cultures viral reprogramming even at a neuro-motor sensory level.” Huh?

But the book’s ultimate effect is to answer in myriad ways the opening volly that Carlo McCormick, the show’s guest curator, lobs in his essay, “A Crack In Time”: “What the hell happened?” It’s a worthy question, considering the decade-long stint gave license for sculptors to become musicians, painters to morph into performance artists, and everyone else to transform themselves as they desired without the benefit of formal training or even any coherent knowledge of the field into which they ventured. This was the end of the hippie era, when women traded in their Birkenstocks for pointy stiletto-heeled “Fuck Me” shoes and Michael Goldstein published the Soho Weekly News. The East Village Eye came out, Joseph Beuys flew into JFK wrapped in felt, and punk spilled out onto the streets of Alphabet City. Lynda Bengalis displayed her enormous nude-with-dildo photo on the cover of Artforum, Franklin Furnace opened, Einstein on the Beach premiered, the South Bronx showcased Fashion Moda amidst its scorched ruins, and graffiti artists proclaimed everything and anything was worth spraying. This was a time before the $70,000 MFA program, when the gallery owner Annina Nosei locked Jean Michel Basquiat in a basement, plying him with drugs and women, the better to sell his canvases wet off the easel. Sid stabbed Nancy, the Mudd Club and CBGBs opened, and The New Museum was founded for real living artists. Annie Sprinkle mixed porn and art and feminism and Karen Finley threw in some chocolate for good measure. The whole scene exploded into a miasma of genre-crossing, cross-dressing and transgressing. The 1980 Times Square Show, fusing graffiti with feminist and political art, allowed almost anyone who said they were an artist to be one. But when the New Year’s Eve ball dropped on the beginning of Orwell’s year of 1984, the party was over. Regan for the first time ever publicly uttered the dreaded word AIDS. New York recovered financially, and real-estate values were never ever again so low. And if you couldn’t be there, well, The Downtown Book can take you.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2006

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