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More risqué material by the pornographic star Annie Sprinkle, the feminist-minded performers Karen F

Peter Hujar's "Candy Darling on Her Deathbed," 1974


The Downtown Scene, When It Was Still Dirty </nyt_headline>

Remember Downtown? No, no, not the sanitized, respectable SoHo and Chelsea of today, but the real down-and-dirty Downtown, when the East Village was an art scene, punk and new wave rock assailed the ears, graffiti spread like kudzu, and heroin and extreme style were the rage. While Downtown lasted, the AIDS plague peaked, police raided illegal lofts, and artists attacked Establishment institutions. It was an explosive era of Super-8 films; "no wave" cinema; street art and performances; oral poetry; political engagement; feminist, gay and lesbian activism; clubs and alternative spaces.


Though its denizens often boasted that they never ventured north of 14th Street, Downtown had porous borders. Geographically, it rambled as far uptown as the South Bronx, but it existed as much in the free-floating minds of its participants as in the confines of grungy streets and lofts.

Hot-to-trot Downtowners, both performers and audiences of their work, read the SoHo Weekly News and the East Village Eye, made the scene at Max's Kansas City and joined the doings at the Kitchen, the smoking griddle of the Downtown art world. Among the art spectacles were Joseph Beuys confined with a coyote behind a chain-link fence at the René Block Gallery; Gordon Matta-Clark carving up buildings with a chain saw; Andy Warhol making multiples and movies at his Factory; and the graffitist Keith Haring leaving his happy hieroglyphs everywhere.

Oh, the bubbling energy, the barrage of high-decibel sound, the wild and woolly frenzy, the sheer proliferation of it all! It's recaptured now - at least a generous slice of it - in "The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984," a humongous time warp of more than 450 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, books, journals, posters and ephemera by artists, writers, performers, musicians and maestros of mixed media, at New York University's Grey Art Gallery and its Fales Library. (The Fales, part of the larger Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, has the world's most extensive collection of materials relating to the Downtown art scene, from 1970 to now.)

The decade covered by the show runs from the enactment in 1974 of the Loft Law, which made it legal for artists to live in the sprawling factory spaces of SoHo, to the re-election of President Ronald Reagan in 1984, confirming the country's sweeping turn to the right. The show's organizers are Lynn Gumpert, the Grey's director, and Marvin Taylor, director of the Fales, with Carlo McCormick, a critic, writer, lecturer and teacher who specializes in pop culture, as guest curator.

Imposing an ingenious kind of order on the scene's inherent chaos, Mr. McCormick has arranged the show in eight sections, among them "Broken Stories," focusing on the imaginative narrative techniques hatched by writers, filmmakers and visual artists during the period; "Body Politics," work dealing with sexuality and identity politics; and "Sublime Time," chronicling breakaways from the reductive Minimalism that preceded the period.

"I knew from the outset that the show couldn't be chronological," Mr. McCormick says in an interview in a brochure accompanying the show. "Instead I came up with these rather vague and totally problematic constructs by which we could put different people of different scenes and from different moments of this arc in the same room and in conversation with each other."

Conversation! With so many clashing ideologies, points of view and attitudes toward art-making, the show generates the buzz and stridency of, say, Canal Street after payday. It's a no-holds-barred hodgepodge that still reflects the vitality of an off-the-wall culture at a time when New York City's fiscal viability was at an ebb, and the shadows of the cold war, Vietnam and Watergate hung over the country.

"It's intense," Ms. Gumpert said of the show. That's putting it mildly, since even with Mr. McCormick's careful arrangements, paintings, drawings, constructions, videos with sound, books, screeds, journals, photographs, designer garments, tchotchkes and whatever still accost you on every side with Downtown fantasies - and realities.

There is the transvestite Candy Darling dying of leukemia - but wearing full makeup - in a hospital photo by Peter Hujar. There is the unforgettable spectacle of Linda Benglis mocking the hypermachismo of Robert Morris by sporting a giant phallus in an Artforum ad for her show. There is Leon Golub's unflattering oil portrait of Henry Kissinger from his series "Portraits of Power." There are the first and second issues of Raw, a magazine showcasing the growing comix community, founded in 1980 by Art Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly. (Mr. Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prizewinning comic books, "Maus I" and "Maus II," were initially serialized in the magazine.) And floating overhead is the gorgeous wispy chiffon and silk costume, loosely inspired by Iranian women's chadors, made by Robert Kushner, a factotum of the Pattern and Decoration movement, for mid-70's performances at the Kitchen and the Holly Solomon Gallery.

A section called "Salon de Refuse" is deliberately kitschy, trashy art that reacted partly to the dictatorial rules imposed by the critic Clement Greenberg for art that conformed to his modernist theories; the Mock Shop is a re-creation of the stores selling low-cost artists' multiples and the like that served as a critique of consumer culture; and De-Signs, at the Fales, presents artists' appropriation of the shorthand signs and strategies of advertising.

"Salon de Refuse" is rife with works of deliberately bad taste that satirize kitsch and flout the serious uptown punditry about what was art and what wasn't. David Hammons, anticipating Chris Ofili by decades, gaily painted elephant dung culled from the Big Apple Circus to make a charming little sculpture; in "Jack the Dripper at Peg's Place," Mike Bidlo created for P.S. 1 a mock installation of Peggy Guggenheim's salon featuring the incident of Jackson Pollock's urinating into her fireplace. (The installation is shown here in photographs by Lisa Kahane.) "Made for TV," by Ann Magnuson and Tom Rubnitz, presents Ms. Magnuson playing a series of feminine stereotypes onscreen.

In the "Broken Stories" section, the show posits that many Downtown artists turned away from the cold monotony of Minimalism and the rule-based rigidity of Conceptual art to take up human subjects and delve into fantasy. In painting, sculpture, filmmaking and writing, the author's voice was projected, though the stories often didn't make linear sense - anticipating, we are told, "central tenets of postmodernism."

In this section, a chilling scene from Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Stills" shows a woman on a Gothic staircase looking fearfully toward a shadowy arch that plunges part of the stairs in darkness. Ida Applebroog uses a kind of animation cel technique in "Sure I'm Sure," a strip that shows a man as he takes off his suit jacket while coolly reassuring an anxious woman (about what?) as she lies in bed awaiting him. Lynne Tillman's book "Madame Realism" (1984), with illustrations by Kiki Smith, draws on experimental writing, critical theory and feminism, to help women understand the effects of the media on their lives.

Also at the Fales, the section "Body Politics" is by and large an X-rated presentation that touches on sex, gender, pornography, feminism, AIDS and other matters of psyche and soma that Downtown was adept at exploring. One highlight is a double portrait by Richard Prince of a demure Ms. Sherman and Mr. Prince himself as her twin. Another is "Reduce/Increase," a self-photograph by William Wegman (of later Weimaraner fame) in a beaded, spangled dress and long-hair wig, marked up to show how he could further transgender by reducing the size of his neck and shoulders and increasing the size of his breasts.

More risqué material by the pornographic star Annie Sprinkle, the feminist-minded performers Karen Finley, Carolee Schneeman and Hannah Wilke, and the photographers Robert Mapplethorpe, Jimmy DeSana and Richard Kern adds to the gravitas here.

Granting that much emerging from Downtown was throwaway stuff, too ephemeral and experimental to last, its effects still reverberate. By pushing the limits, its participants opened possibilities for artists who followed them. Moreover, their work confronted social and political concerns. For better or worse, they helped change the definition of what art and artists might be.

A related exhibition, "Anarchy to Affluence: Design in New York, 1974-1984" at Parsons the New School for Design, 66 Fifth Avenue, near 12th Street (through April 2), surveys the interiors, furniture, graphics, fashion and illustration produced in the period.

Also coinciding with "The Downtown Show," "Notes and Itineraries, 1976-2004" at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, 31 Mercer Street, SoHo (through Feb. 4), is an archive of notated gallery cards compiled by the critic Kim Levin to form a partial survey of the era's art scene.

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