The New Museum’s spotty spark plug of a show devoted to that flash in the pan and ache in the heart known as the East Village art scene reminds us that alternative scenes start rebellious, generate energy, but often fade quickly or sell out swiftly. Even though the New Museum is only temporarily occupying this building and is severely limited by space, “East Village USA”—deftly and lovingly organized by Dan Cameron—is a winsome jewel that will shine until another museum has the nerve to step into such a jumbled breach. It also suggests curators aren’t doing their jobs unless they’re regularly tackling speculative subjects in big group shows.
“East Village USA” affirms that, while we still have fringe activity and an underground, our fringes are better organized and our underground is more mainstream. This doesn’t mean there’s less good art now, that we lack integrity, or that the East Village was a golden age. Far from it. Some of the worst art of the decade passed through some of those storefront galleries. Nevertheless, if you come away thinking the East Village was just a bargain basement of second-stringers, you’re looking too narrowly or haven’t adjusted your filters to appreciate artists who, while not “major,” are or were quite gifted. Viewers with open minds and gentle hearts will discern ideas and attitudes that were put into motion then that are still in play today. For a time the East Village was the art world’s duodenum—no matter how it came out, almost everything passed through it.
Admittedly, the place emitted a tang of cultishness, desperation, and squalor. This scene was all trial and error and delusions of grandeur: ego, libido, unexamined ambition, adolescent energy, creepy collectors, crazy critics, obnoxious middlemen, burnout, and ferment. Everything was built bottom-up and was thrilling for 15 minutes before it was spun into success and out of existence. Artists, dealers, and hangers-on who had no other choice, weren’t worldly enough, weren’t part of the more established scene, or just wanted to try it another way had one brief fling at bohemian royalty, success, and excess. This motley crew created the overhyped twinkling star known as the East Village art scene.
Since the show opened every geezer worth their salt has recounted the time the EV was their HQ. My brush with it started late and lasted long. In 1983—after “the glory days,” according to aficionados—I paid $4,000 to a Hasidic attorney who owned the building for a tiny co-op in a drug-infested tenement on Avenue B and 4th Street. I moved in and everything was perfect—even the guard dog patrolling the hallway. The only problem was, the man I gave the money to wasn’t a lawyer and he didn’t own the building. I stayed for 10 years, fighting landlords and the city, paying almost nothing, until a glamorous former Andy Warhol superstar bought the building and eventually evicted me. I loved every second of it.
As with so many others, the East Village was my last chance; probably it was my only chance. I badly wanted to be part of the Soho art world, but it was too codified for a nonperson to get any traction. That scene essentially had 18 artists, eight dealers, seven collectors, and six critics; and I, like almost everyone else in the EV, wasn’t one of them. The East Village was a place where just being around or staying up late seemed to confer status on those who couldn’t get arrested otherwise.
The way Cameron has installed the first room of the show perfectly encapsulates the two-step nature of the East Village. On the left is a vibrant 1982 Day-Glo painting of a red dog battling green people by Keith Haring. On the right, an exquisite 1984 combination of Hans Arp and Playboy bunny logos by Philip Taaffe. The Haring phase started around 1981 and was composed of post-post-neo-expressionist/graffiti artists. I used to call this the “School of the Exploding Dog.” Galleries from this funkier, more club-kid side of the philosophical tracks included Fun, Gracie Mansion, and skuzzy, now rightly and wrongly forgotten spaces with groovy names like New Math, Civilian Warfare, and Piezo Electric. I didn’t care for most of the art shown in these spaces, but a number of excellent artists came to prominence there, including some who are in this show (and some who are not)—almost all of whom transcend the labels. Here, don’t miss Peter Hujar, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nan Goldin, and David Wojnarowicz.
While phase one was nocturnal, slapdash, semi-anarchic, anti-establishment, multicultural, and quasi-utopian, phase two—which began around 1985 and essentially ate and displaced phase one—was its exact opposite: It was diurnal, white, businesslike, cooler, cleaner, more cerebral, and haughtier if you weren’t in the inner circles. Galleries included 303, International With Monument, Nature Morte, Cash-Newhouse, Pat Hearn, and American Fine Arts, which was run by the late pirate prince Colin de Land, and closed only last month. Some of the better artists representing this phase include Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton, Richard Prince, and the late Gretchen Bender.
Whatever else it might have been, the East Village was too muddled to be put in a nutshell. That Cameron and the New Museum have come this close to capturing some of its mojo is nothing short of wonderful.