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East of Eden

John Haber
in New York City

East Village USA

How can so much bad art have generated so many lasting ideas? At "East Village USA," one could have entered a time warp. One could also, however, be watching the test marketing for the hypercharged art scene of today.

Myth making

The East Village, like many an artist's youth, has taken the status of a myth. Maybe you were there, too, overexposed to graffiti in and out of galleries. Maybe you, too, lived north of 24th Street before anyone dared call it Chelsea or walked south of Houston before galleries had reached the Lower East Side. Maybe you, too, had stood outside CBGB's at night in the 1970s, and maybe now you stumbled further east, across a not fully conscious body or two, in search of art's future. I know I did, but can I trust my own memories? Memory may even erase what once seemed so strange and new. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, The New Irascibles [Artists] (Collection of the artist, 1985-1986)

Legend has it wrong. For starters, the East Village did not begin the assault on formalism. Neo-Expressionism had already had its say, with a European high style and an American mural scale that meshed too well with Soho's high seriousness. In the storefronts past First Avenue, however, that style no longer belonged, and the scale could hardly fit in the door.

It did not inaugurate the first alternative spaces. Even if one discounts Soho—or any number of movements in the history of Modernism—P.S. 1 had opened in 1976, expanding in no time to the Clocktower and beyond. None of these models, however, immersed themselves in a wider community. The new galleries did.

It did not disrupt the system's success or, for that matter, its sense of adventure. Galleries, many of them new and lasting, continued to expand Soho's creative and geographic reaches. The East Village turned its back on all that, but not for long. By the end of the 1980s, Pat Hearn was exhibiting jointly with Leo Castelli, while other survivors moved to Soho and, later, on to Chelsea—each time with larger and pricier spaces. Still, something did change in the process. Thanks to the East Village, art had gone public, and artists had become culture heroes.

It did not follow a neat storyline, from idealistic pioneers to sophisticates. Modernism had done quite enough with idealism and movements. East Village art did not even begin in the East Village. It spilled over from Fashion Moda in the Bronx, and its semiofficial launch took place with the 1980 "Times Square Show." A friend of mine had his studio for a while at P.S. 122 on First Avenue—but he was still working through geometric abstraction, even as he got his adrenaline rush from the streets below.

In plain English, what a mess, but with a course quite distinct from avant-garde before it. Maybe, too, you still hardly know what to make of it. Does Chelsea mean that the East Village failed or that it succeeded all too well? No wonder the East Village comes wrapped up in myths. In a way unheard of before, artists wanted to become legends.

Role playing

The New Museum evokes the decade well, from diverse personalities in uneasy proximity to a dense, sympathetic hanging that could almost have worked in Grace Mansion's bathroom. Thanks to Richard Kern's video, Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch play hard in the show's one dark alcove, like the Bowery I once passed on my way east. And even the Bowery had studios for artists rooted in the decade or two before, like Robert Indiana and Charles Hinman. Open views of the museum's lower floor make performance art, on large screens, a constant backdrop. Upstairs, photographs and a collage of gallery invitations extend the media mix and add yet another layer of urban archaeology.

One can see several distinct but overlapping styles, each with a dated look but also an unmistakable impact on the present. Of course, the Village treated graffiti as urban revolution and as art, with Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, and Lee Quinones. If they seem quaint, Basquiat's work is on display concurrently in Chelsea, and Tony Shafrazi, a practitioner not in the show, has opened a grandiose Chelsea gallery devoted to the cause. (Not that graffiti ever understood irony.) Their influence survives, too, in younger artists who incorporate surfaces and traces, from Katherine Bernhardt to Kysa Johnson.

From graffiti, it is an easy step to cartoon visions of angry streets and tenements at night—a connection that still influences such artists as Barry McGee and SWOON. Quinones, Martin Wong, and Anton Van Dalon all aim for rawness, decrepitude, danger, and fun. With Wong, David Wojnarowicz, David Altmejd, and George Condo, too, cartoons transpose easily into fantasy, symbolism, and camp: And again, if their work looks awful now, alternative comics are thriving. Artists such as Laylah Ali and Justin Faunce, also concurrently on display elsewhere, have become stars by comics and album covers in paint, whether I like it or not.

From camp, one slides over to glitter, as with McDermott and McGough, Arch Connelly, or Rodney Alan Greenblatt. And from there, one can make connections to Mike Bidlo as Pop Pollock or to Neo-Geo, as with Philip Taaffe, Ashley Bickerton, Lansing-Dreiden, and Peter Halley with his cooler, more theory driven version. One can connect, too, to sculptural appropriation. A gilded bathtub, not quite ready to float or sink but definitely ready to sell, shows Jeff Koons with a greater edge than I have come to expect. Becky Howland's Transmission Towers could stand for the wider dissemination of art or for an alternative to gallery and media concentration. stocks by Kiki Smith evoke Puritanism—in the art world and in America's treatment of women.

One is already close to gender role playing, perhaps the decade's most striking contribution. That includes photographic appropriation—with Richard Prince, Laurie Simmons, Sara Charlesworth, and Nan Goldin—or the cutting words of Jenny Holzer before she upped the ante from stencil to high tech. It includes the obsessive documentation of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, as in the work of Goldin, Jack Smith, Donna Ferrato, and Peter Hujar. (Ferrato, Hujar, and Bruce Conners are not in but caught punk degradation in other venues.) Not least, it includes role playing in real time, with filmed performances by Karen Finley, Ann Magnuson, and Ethel Eichelberger. Eichelberger's Leer—an old man keening in his madness, caught between Shakespeare's king and the male gaze—still looks funny and immeasurably sad.

Finally and always, the artist is on display big time. Graffiti made the news, and so did art. Some East Village artists parodied stardom, and some reveled in it, but art's relationship to its audience had changed, and so had the artist's to the work. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders photographs critics, dealers, and artists—grouped separately but so very much alike. David Robbins portrays hot artists as Talent, in the style that actors use for promotional stills. Did I say that the movement began in Times Square?

Mall building

Sincere and egoistic, rebellious and overblown, it sounds so familiar today. How fitting that the exhibition relies on a temporary space, before the New Museum returns, like dealers and artists then, to the fringe of Soho. How fitting, too, that it abuts the Dia Center, the very nucleus of Chelsea.

Did anything really change, then, after the 1980s, and if so, why? Artists had sidestepped Soho for something leaner and meaner, and they returned almost exactly when the neighborhood was growing most commercial. A moment in culture had died, but was its death a betrayal of the cause, a result of external forces, or something inherent in the scene from the start? The question recalls arguments over what went wrong with the Soviet Union—or with the avant-garde. And, as in those examples, surely all three play a part.

Artists did grow spoiled—or at least more savvy. AIDS took its toll, even before Charles LeDray spread out clothing in its honor in Astor Place. Success brought higher rents, and East Village galleries had never had enough display space anyhow. Issues that artists were exploring in and out of Soho naturally converged. Still, artists and dealers ended up in Soho because they had so desperately sought attention all along. If the museum calls this show "East Village USA," with "NYC 1993" to follow, maybe fame, fortune, and Soho's influx of chain stores supply the "USA."

Art now does not simply extend the 1980s, of course. Things then truly did feel grittier and more uncertain. Compare the ogling that comes so naturally when one views Hujar's Chelsea exhibition now with the starkness of Goldin's photos then. Compare Ryan McGinley, Sam Taylor-Woods, and their righteous self-obsession with her commitment to gender issues and risk taking. Compare, for that matter, the Potemkin steps of Shafrazi's temple to the sensibility it tries so hard to elevate.

Art exceeds its roots in the East Village for another reason, too: it demanded more. So much of "East Village USA" looks forgettable—precisely because artistic, metaphysical, and technical explorations continued elsewhere in those same years. Think of how video and installation art grew so independent of film and performance.

One can see Chelsea, in fact, as a conscious revision of the last break from Soho, determined this time to get it right. Galleries will have enough space, publicity, and coordination, and a neighborhood zoned for apartments and self-storage will not easily accommodate Victoria's Secret. This time, art will be its own shopping mall rather than import one from New Jersey.

East Village redux?

Has art, then, really got things back on course, or has it rather managed the worst of both worlds? When it brings together the East Village and Soho, has it achieved experiment and authority, new audience and old dealers, or merely the redoubled sales pitch of the hustler and the megabuck?

True, however pretentious and impersonal galleries may seem these days, they have the strength of family businesses, along with the commitment to create their own standards and to forge their own networks. Besides, more galleries really can translate into an embarrassment of riches, not just an embarrassment. If this be a bubble, make the most of its exuberance, before it bursts. Yet even supporters note how little one can see, much less interpret or judge, in the course of a full day. They have to accept the artificiality of wall-to-wall white cubes, detached from the fabric of the city as the East Village or Soho way back then never was.

Chelsea's disconnection does not amount to a mere design choice, a shift from Soho street lamps to the shadow of the High Line. It is not about lack of convenient subways, as long as so many like me are willing to walk, or of restaurants, which happily follow the crowds. It is not even about who gets displaced, a shift from lost artist studios to lost auto-body shops. The displaced aren't coming back, and the Village and Soho alike abandoned their own significance along with their history. No, it is about changing notions of legitimacy.

When Chelsea began, legitimacy already meant something too mythical to sustain itself. It meant an art scene with time and space for people to care, and even—as with Brooklyn or the Lower East Side of "Lush Life" now—welcoming Sunday hours. Now it means the legitimacy conferred by enough people voting with their feet. Paradoxically, as in the shopping malls imposed on many "restored" city centers, that kind of attention risks no one's paying enough attention. It creates a disconnect between artists and audiences.

When I started this site, I assumed that the lines were drawn between Modernism and its critics. In what I called the postmodern paradox, I argued, more hopefully, that a critique by artists and critics alike actually connects present to past, a past under constant reinvention. In turn, rearguard defenses keep the critique going, along with the potential for new art. And all that is true, but it assumes a debate between or within well-defined communities. Can one have a Salon des Refusés when no one is refused and no one has time to notice the omissions anyway? One may find instead a mile-long version of the eighteenth-century French Academy or the nineteenth-century Salon.

Whatever the outcome, without the East Village, I can hardly imagine the change from the Soho of the 1970s to the crowds at the Armory Show, global art fairs, Biennials, and Chelsea today. I can hardly imagine, too, the struggle of galleries beyond Chelsea, trapped between isolation and gentrification. Once, artists went east of Soho's Eden to broaden the scope and definition of art. They wanted to make it relevant to one another and to New York. For better or, often, worse, they succeeded.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"East Village USA" ran at The New Museum of Contemporary Art through March 19, 2005. The gallery exhibitions I mention in passing generally concluded in mid-February.

 

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