MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | OCTOBER 31, 2017 – APRIL 1, 2018
“I like to be able to still be in my g-string and mingle with the audience,” the adult film star, sometimes go-go dancer, and photographer John Mozzer (alias Alan Adrian in the 1980s) divulges over the phone to the flamboyant club performer, John Sex. This intimate phone conversation, recorded one evening in early December 1982, on Mozzer’s 1980 Dictaphone Ansafone 787, is included in MoMA’s current exhibition Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village 1978-1983. In the course of the conversation, the two discuss their mutual love of interacting with a live audience. “I either jump in the audience or I end up pulling someone out of the audience and messing around on stage with them, and people go crazy!” says Sex—born John McLaughlin—as he explains why people pay more attention when he’s scantily clad and interactive, which, of course, leads to more gigs. As his adopted name suggests, Sex fully embraced and embodied the market mantra “sex sells.” Mozzer had initially called Sex about plans to perform at the Garden of Fuzz New Year’s Eve party his roommate—the artist, filmmaker, and publisher of Bikini Girl magazine, Lisa Baumgardner—was organizing with members of Club 57. Mozzer, Sex, and Baumgardner were all part of a diffuse web of creatives involved in making Club 57, a nightclub alternative art space, one of the foundational sites in the development of the much-mythologized early 1980s East Village art scene. These recordings are the closest we can now get to knowing these young, indefatigable, restless artists.
Club 57, founded by polish émigré Stanley Strychacki who was later joined by recent film school graduates Susan Hannaford and Tom Scully, was located in the basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church at 57 St. Mark’s Place. In operation from 1978 until 1983, the club was managed early-on and curated by the actress and director Ann Magnuson, who, along with many others, planned events nearly every single night, from themed parties (like Elvis Memorial Night), to wrestling matches, concerts, film screenings, poetry readings, performances, and exhibitions. Operating on a nearly non-existent budget, and skirting the city’s liquor laws by utilizing a membership-only structure, the club was a collective labor of love.
The exhibition, organized by the curators of the museum’s Department of Film, Ron Magliozzi and Sophie Cavoulacos, with Magnuson serving as a guest co-curator, is filled with documentary photographs, paintings, videos, handmade flyers, silk-screened posters for the club’s events, and fantastical outfits. Among these, most notably, is the legendary clear plastic cape worn by alien-drag performer Klaus Nomi following his first live performance at the six-night New Wave Vaudeville Show (the incubator for what would become Club 57) and Daniel Durning’s pink fiberglass insulation coat. These objects and documents suggest the scrappiness of the club’s members and their endeavors—making costumes out of what was cheap and available at hand, having close friends perform in videos and live performances, and Xeroxing collaged, hand-drawn flyers for events.
The exhibition seems at once to want to validate the individual artistic works of those included, site their socio-political and cultural relevance, envision an institutional history of a non-institutionalized art space, communicate a certain collectivity, and showcase artifacts from a unique moment of New York City history. The themes present in the selection of works are equally as diverse, communicating these artists’ ingenuity and vibrancy despite scarcity, their interdisciplinarity, collaboration, media saturation, disillusionment, sex and gender play, and their pervasive performativity. Indeed, it’s not immediately apparent what the exhibition’s focus is, what exactly Club 57 was, and even why it’s significant. As the indices of the scene, Mozzer’s phone recordings help to clarify. Chiefly, Club 57 was a space, among many, that not only engendered a pre-digital social network by fostering creative exchange, but also served as one of its primary sites. Although listening in on these phone conversations feels voyeuristic, they provide an intimate glimpse of an economically poor yet creatively rich community and the characteristics of this new kind of expansive family forged in the ruin of a bankrupt New York City.
Much of the work traffics in parody, a reaction to the promised yet failed postwar utopia—experienced directly on the city’s crumbling streets—and the suffusion of image culture and the media into seemingly all aspects of everyday life. The most striking example of the latter was perhaps Ronald Reagan, the former B-list Hollywood actor turned California Governor and, in 1981, President of the United States. He appears in a spread from 1980 in the Soho Weekly News created by Magnuson with photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi, which features the headline, “It’s a Reagan World! When the Moral Majority meets the ‘In” crowd.” In it, several downtown dwellers, like the queer filmmaker and performer Jack Smith, pose in pairs, buttoned-up as hetero couples in front of manicured split-level suburban homes.
While much of the work made by those involved in the club is more than deserving to be on view at MoMA, the club’s DIY ethos is palpably at odds with the institution’s sleekness and corporate structuring. It is perhaps fitting, however, that the exhibition is located on the museum’s two subterranean floors, an attempt to ameliorate this incongruence; the ceilings are lower, the spaces more cramped, and the floors covered by old carpet. There are clever evocations of the club’s atmosphere with mismatched, cheap foldable metal chairs, some broken and spray-painted by Club 57 artist Kenny Scharf, placed in front of an outmoded, manual pull-down projector screen. The impressively large catalogue of film and video amassed for the exhibition is screened in weekly rotations, the roster of which is announced in the space by a small sandwich chalk-board, each title handwritten in a different color. The exhibition design is a marriage of happenstance, relocated to the comparatively shabby basement, and a canned attempt at subversiveness. Momentarily, the exhibition sheds its MoMA skin; but unsurprisingly, questions linger as to whether the material would be better suited at a more alternative space, and, if exhibitions attempting to conjure cultural milieus can ever truly hit the mark.
The curatorial team undertook a robust collecting and preservation initiative, unearthing and conserving materials that have heretofore lived in private archives, under beds and in the backs of closets. There are over 380 works on view by over 90 artists with many more in the accompanying film and performance programs, and although it would be impossible in an exhibition format given the finite space allotted, the number of those included who made meaningful contributions to the club could have been more than double. The range and variety of things on view attests to the near manic pace at which these artists worked, or perhaps more accurately, how their daily lives and creative production were totally fused. But, as with most exhibitions comprised of ephemera related to interdisciplinary, social, and largely performative practices, much of what was created at the club cannot fully be communicated through objects.
The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue—and, in fact, the body of scholarship on this moment—privileges the witnesses account, the personal stories of those involved, in an attempt to convey what took place. The effort to collect many of these stories was one of the exhibitions great necessities; the curators took on an enormous and daunting task to try and envision a creative network whose coordinates are expansive. However, inevitably, certain individuals and stories are favored over others. MoMA loves the stories of the winners, or the stars—in this instance, Ann Magnuson, Kenny Scharf, and Keith Haring, all of whom are featured prominently in the exhibition. These individuals’ contributions to art history and the creative sphere more broadly are significant, to be sure, but to highlight them so strongly belies precisely what made Club 57 special and unique; it was a large collective endeavor by many struggling and ambitious young artists. Again, Mozzer’s recordings are important because they are not the retelling of these artist’s stories, of what took place tainted by memory. In real time, they are proof of exchanges between creatives, regardless of the fact that some are better known than others.
The show also functions, in part, as an elegiac memorial for those who can no longer tell their stories, like John Sex, who, among many of those involved downtown, died of AIDS related causes in the early nineties. Tucked in the back corner, in a vestibule by the water fountains and next to the oft-used museum staff swing doors, is an unfinished video work titled Listen to This (1992) by Tom Rubnitz featuring the artist David Wojnarowicz, both of whom died during the AIDS epidemic. In it, Wojnarowicz delivers a powerful screed, ostensibly ending the show with a punch in the gut that still hits today. Recorded as a talking head, Wojnarowicz broadcasts, “I am speaking to you from inside a little box called television…and because I speak to you from inside this box, you tend to believe me…my job is to give you a false sense of comfort or safety, or fear, or confusion, depending on what the few people behind the scenes want to achieve.” This truth is coupled with New York Daily News and New York Post front pages, proclaiming varying levels of calamity like, “NUCLEAR CRISIS,” “VOLCANO CLOUD ON ITS WAY,” and “ROD STEWART MUGGED,” which introduce the show in the museum’s lobby. Serving as the show’s bookends, Listen to This and these headlines provide a significant cultural frame, one not dissimilar to our own. Addressing the AIDS epidemic, the real scourge of that moment affecting this community of artists so intensely, Wojnarowicz turns more personal, “Fuck your tidy sensibilities…projecting onto us, those who have been diagnosed, that somehow our entire lives have come to a screeching halt…that we somehow no longer hope or dream for future movements…bottom line, when I’m ill, I will deal with illness, when I’m not ill, I’ll deal with living, with exactly the same passion as you, with exactly the same needs as you, with only one simple and yet perplex difference and that is that I see all of life through a window-frame of my mortality.” What begins with antagonism is in fact a plea for empathy. So, while our parallel moments feature crises of morals, ethics, and truth—as most do—what heartens is the fact that artistic resilience and creative communities can persevere and thrive despite the odds.
MEREDITH MOWDER is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, writing a dissertation on performance art in downtown New York City during the late 1970s and 1980s.