Scene Spirit

David Velasco on “The Downtown Show”

New York

Left: Old Devil Moon restaurant's Dennis Driscoll with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. Right: Paper's Carlo McCormick.

With “I Love the '80s” nostalgia poised to swallow what's left of New York's twenty- and thirtysomething creative class, what remains of the object behind the infatuation? Monday night's preview of “The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974–1984,” a sprawling study of roughly 450 works from that messy decade held jointly at New York University's Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library, promised an inside peek at the scurvy, savvy community builders who paved the way for ACT UP, the NEA Four, and Urban Outfitters.

Entering NYU's Bobst library, I confronted the sublimely terrifying maw of the Philip Johnson–designed foyer—now architectonically enhanced by tall Plexiglas shields supplementing each of the floors' balustrades—and followed the sound of Television's “Venus” to the Fales special collection room to see what curator Carlo McCormick, who worked along with NYU's Lynn Gumpert and Marvin Taylor, had pulled from the archives. Given the general rowdiness of the artists in the show (a disproportionate number of whom met their fate far too early), it's strange to see their work inhabiting this somewhat oppressive panopticon. But it's also fitting that NYU, the hunter-gatherer of downtown's acreage, is now showcasing New York’s grassroots art scene.

Left: Ben Rothenberg and Kembra Pfahler. Right: Fales's Marvin Taylor.

Before I became inured to the fluorescent-lit surroundings, I popped around the corner to the Grey Art Gallery, where revelers were beginning to arrive for the main celebration. Besides the innumerable deceased (this fast-living generation was notoriously hard hit by AIDS), conspicuously absent from the party were numerous now-blue-chip artists who had “graduated” from the scene years ago (Kiki Smith, Laurie Anderson, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Nan Goldin, etc.), despite the fact that many still live a quick jaunt away from Washington Square Park. One wag noted that these artists' success amounted to something of a scarlet letter in this context; those who were “left behind would hate them.”

Despite a setting that could have devolved into resentful set-tos, the show itself is a far-reaching and inclusive survey that never loses its edge. The mixed crowd consisted of quirky elders (why are graying scenesters the only ones willing to take fashion risks?), wide-eyed students, and a smattering of polished kool things. Seeing two favorite artists in Richard Prince's Untitled (Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman), 1980, reminded me that much of this work was born out of a community that was simultaneously playful and inspired, while prints such as Candy Darling on her Deathbed, 1974, by scene chronicler Peter Hujar brought to mind the interlocking lives (and frequently reciprocal roles) of artists, subjects, and caregivers. This doesn’t mean that every piece represented the best work by its creator. Overheard: “Wait, that's by Kiki Smith? It looks so much like David Wojnarowicz. And on top of that it’s hideous.”

Left: Actor Michael Pitt. Right: Gina Nanni and Glenn O'Brien.

With upwards of 1,700 people in attendance, the gallery was packed tighter than a jar of pickles, and it didn’t take long for all the personalities to begin to blend together. Actor Michael Pitt, still working his Kurt Cobain Last Days look, made sure to flip his dusty-blonde hair over his eyes before letting me snap a picture. I knew I was due for some air when Glenn O'Brien, whose documentary TV Party is on the film festival circuit, began to resemble a long-lost twin brother of downtown legend Debbie Harry. Thankfully, the opening at the Grey was over anyway, and NYU's efficient security drones herded us out to the pavement. Outside I caught sight of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black's ever-popular and often-blue frontwoman Kembra Pfahler, whose piece in the show, Early Availablism, 1983, documents her practice of “making best use of what’s available.” “This is my new fiancé!” she exclaimed. As she grinned at him expectantly, the hubby-to-be quipped, “Yeah, you're gonna be Kembra Rothenberg soon.”

I quickly swung by Parsons for “Anarchy to Affluence: 1974–1984,” which was opening in conjunction with the NYU exhibition, but didn’t stay long. Despite some impressive wares by '80s designer to the demimonde Stephen Sprouse, the crowd had moved on, and I was already running fashionably late to the after party at Lit. “It's strange to see some of these people out at a club these days,” remarked an acquaintance once I had arrived at the hipster lair. “They look so anxious in this setting.” But others from the tenacious downtown crew seemed energized by the change of scenery. “I think the demographic just went down a decade,” noted McCormick with some excitement, eyeing a younger, prettier, over-capacity crowd that was bearing towards the homogenous. With T-shirts and jeans still the staple of cool indifference, the only mutable feature seemed to be the haircuts. As the old school mixed with the still-in-school, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore lounged in the red-lit back room and groupies for downtown heroes Bush Tetras lined up near the stage. “Is that pot I smell? I love pot!” McCormick shouted into the mic before announcing his “favorite band.” As the quartet opened with “Things That Go Boom in the Night,” I hazily recalled the personalities I had spotted that evening, many of whom—from Lynn Yaeger and Colette to Sur Rodney (Sur) and Richard Hell—had infused lower Manhattan with artistic grit and unconventional glamour for the past three decades. While a tide of rapacious developers and up-all-night undergrads swelled outside, it didn't matter, because the night belonged to those with rent-stabilized digs. But my reveries were cut short when the show cleared out by 11:00PM—this is the old guard now, after all.

Left: The Bush Tetras at Lit. Right: Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo mans the decks.

Left: Fashion critic Lynn Yaeger. Right: Ex-Voidoid Richard Hell.

Left: Artist George Bunker III and gallerist Pavel Zoubok. Right: Lisa Fox and Eric Bogosian.

Left: Colette with her Self-Portrait Transformation, 1975–76. Right: Sur Rodney (Sur).

Left: Paper editor Kim Hastreiter. Right: Willoughby Sharp.