Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983


Acts of Live Art at Club 57. Pictured: Larry Ashton. 1980. Photograph by and courtesy Joseph Szkodzinski.

At the bottom of the escalator, in the basement of the Museum of Modern Art, there’s a curtained-off grotto of dayglo plastic novelty items illuminated with a black light—a reproduction of the Cosmic Closet where artist Kenny Scharf used to get high. “What's in there?” someone asks the museum guard, “I lived through the ’70s. Once is enough.”

With Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983, curators Ron Magliozzi and Sophie Cavoulacos don’t recover the 1970s, but the artifacts of a particular tribe that flourished below 14th Street. In the post-punk era of Cold War anxiety, urban decay, and the birth of the Moral Majority, a social club appeared in the basement of a Polish church at 57 St. Marks Place. A revolving cast of art school kids—including MoMA's guest curator Ann Magnuson, Susan Hannaford, Tom Scully, and Keith Haring—programmed nightly events, from themed dance parties to monster movie screenings to one-night-only art shows. Here were kids from the suburbs raised on TV, hip to the politics of representation, and young European émigrés—quick studies in the switchy art of identity crossing. Their performances and provocations provide a case study, say the curators, for the cross-disciplinary, collaborative forays of New York’s avant-garde.  

In the first gallery, a Xeroxed flyer declares the ethos of the place: “I stand for uncertainty, insecurity, surprise, disorder, unlawfulness, bad taste, fun, things that go boom in the night & SISSIES! SISSIES!” Playbills and silkscreened, neon-colored posters announce a vaudeville spirit (“Acts of Live Art”) and an irreverent attitude toward gender and sexual identity. The club’s male burlesque shows and Lady Wrestling Night suggest a “politics of gender nonconformity,” as Magliozzi writes in the exhibition catalogue. Diverse materials from the feminist punk magazine Bikini Girl to Kitty Brophy's savage ink drawings—female bodies as cyborgs, cut-ups of mix'n'match parts, dismembered by male violence—disrupt discursive narratives about the female body. 

My favorite piece in this gallery is a small pencil drawing from the late 1950s by a teenager in Germany named Klaus Sperber. In the top panel is a scene from Disney's Sleeping Beauty—three fairy godmothers dressed in cloaks—above three views of opera singer Maria Callas. The drawing hangs on the wall beside a clear plastic cape worn by the artist when he first descended on the East Village like an androgynous extraterrestrial. The inspired pairing reveals the DNA of performer Klaus Nomi: European high culture, operatic melodrama, American pop, and adolescent fantasia. 

Installation view of Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 31, 2017-April 1, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

Down the escalator, the second gallery’s drop ceiling and dark walls suggest the dim atmosphere of the basement club. In the center of the space, a makeshift theater of mismatched chairs and utility clamp-lights faces a drop down projection screen. Videos and films by Club 57 artists are programmed in repertory fashion. When I visited, the lineup included Anders Grafstrom’s 1980 film Long Island Four—a Nazi hunting caper with a downtown cast, including David McDermott, Eric Mitchell, Patti Astor, Tina L’Hotsky, and Klaus Nomi—and a post-apocalyptic space fantasy by Kenny Scharf. As in Scharf’s paintings that hang in this gallery, the future here is fun: a bubble-gum-colored vision of retro-nostalgia indebted to pulp science fiction and cartoons.

In Scharf’s series of paintings, Death of Estelle (1979), a woman flees from atomic disaster into the limitless future of space. In a galaxy of throwback Cadillac fins, Scharf lampoons the promises of consumer technology and a belief in progress. "In the ‘60s . . . we were going to go to space,” he tells curators. “The ‘70s came around and it wasn’t going that way.” On the heels of Watergate and Vietnam, when the city was broke and so were the artists, the club’s madcap spirit may have been a little whistling in the dark. But “fun” was also a tactical maneuver—an affront to authorities that had betrayed the common good (“Ford to City: Drop Dead,” as The Daily News memorably put it in 1975).

Scharf’s goofy, Jetson-era vision of the space age is answered by the sobering skepticism of Chinese-American conceptual artist and photographer Tseng Kwong Chi. During the 1980s, in the early days of the space shuttle program, Tseng executed a series of self-portraits at the Kennedy Space Center. Large-scale black-and-white prints show the artist dwarfed on the landscape of techno-innovation. The massive icons of NASA coincide with a new monumentality in the art world. Increasing institutionalization, specialization, and commodification meant the end of alternative spaces like Club 57.  

And the AIDS crisis revealed the limits of fun as a form of resistance. Club 57 presents painting, drawing, and photography that confront the erasure of the body by disease. In Tom Rubnitz’s 1992 video, Listen To This, David Wojnarowicz addresses the viewer in prophetic mode. He denounces the “telecommunications con,” which cultivates a tribe of zombies, and decries church and state for failing to adequately respond to the crisis. Here is a call to action, according to the curators, but the work is easy to miss in this back-of-the-house alcove. While Wojnarowicz rails against the hyenas of society, museum guards pass through a door marked Staff Only on their way to the vending machine. 

Club 57 has a reunion vibe, convening club veterans like Scharf and Nomi collaborator Joey Arias. But those who know the period mainly as the bad old days of open-access weirdness may miss important themes here. Little wall text accompanies the work while a chorus of videos and music saturates the space. Omitted is the important role of the émigré, for example, in shaping the club’s salvage aesthetic and satirical outlook. Many transplants, drawn by cheap real estate, settled in the East Village during this time, including Club 57’s Polish-born founder and director Stanley Strychacki and many of the artists in this exhibition. (While the show doesn't address this question, Magliozzi says the museum plans to examine race, gender, and drag performance with additional programming in the spring.)

The curators’ real achievement is their extensive research and historical documentation, including interviews and conversations with over 200 artists over a period of several years. Filling a gap in other archives—the Downtown Collection at NYU’s Fales Library, for example—Magliozzi and Cavoulacos have collected and preserved archival material that might otherwise languish under someone’s bed. (“That always seems to be the place,” says Cavoulacos.) The exhibition features previously unseen or forgotten work, including four Super 8mm feature films by Austrian-born filmmaker Harald Vogl, which MoMA is screening in connection with this show, and the Klaus Nomi drawing, exhibited here for the first time.

Further, Club 57 maps a set of underground attitudes and practices that have now gone mainstream. “Above all, the imperative to ecstatic and eccentric self-expression—to be yourself, and to not let anyone make you pretend to be otherwise—is no longer just a niche value, cherished by a band of weirdos,” wrote critic Jerry Saltz in a memorial for downtown writer Glenn O’Brien earlier this year. “It is the overwhelming message of American culture today.” Here, we see the end of the performance space as a laboratory for cultural change. Placed inside the glass case of the museum, these materials mark the passing of independent culture in the era of the global art fair, when a handful of tech giants provide the infrastructure for our cultural products and the ethos of the market—personalization, customization—has absorbed the avant-garde commitment to self-expression.  

 “I know that one can leave a nightclub with the feeling that nothing can ever be the same,” writes critic Greil Marcus in his book Lipstick Traces. “But as I move off to a long look at those things that were, for a short time now long past, brought to bear in a few performances, performances played out on small stages or in the pages of obscure publications, it is worth attending to a version of the performing spaces as a place where revolution goes to die.”


Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.