PRINT Summer 1981

Skied and Grounded in Queens: “New York/New Wave” at P.S. 1

A Parable
You’ve got to climb to the top of Mount Everest
to reach the Valley of the Dolls.
It’s a brutal climb to reach that peak,
which so few have seen.
You never knew what was really up there,
but the last thing you expected to find
was the Valley of the Dolls.
You stand there, waiting for
the rush of exhilaration you thought you’d feel—but
it doesn’t come.
You’re too far away to hear the applause
and take your bows.
And there’s no place left to climb.
You’re alone, and
the feeling of loneliness is overpowering.
The air is so thin you can scarcely breathe.
You’ve made it—and the world says
you’re a hero.
But it was more fun at the bottom
when you started,
with nothing more than hope and
the dream of fulfillment.
—Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls1

Art History
. . . Felix [Partz] then turned to DIEGO CORTEZ with his wind tunnel hair style and moaned about being cut-out of Diego’s new film. Corrective Posture stars JIMMY DESANA and recently hit the screens via the analytical projector In an attempt to pacify Felix, Diego presented him with the outtakes. Felix scanned them voraciously. “Well, thanks, thank you for cutting me out,” said Felix, “I look like a hunchback.” As well as a carefully groomed performance by Jimmy de Sana, the demanding film featured the lurchings of Robin Lee Crutchfield and a casual portrait by AA BRONSON.

Incidentally I spotted TONY SHIFRAZI the infamous Guernica touch-up artist who has performed at the Museum of Modern Art. I knew that Diego had been the guard at MoMA, stationed at Guernica when Tony attempted his addition to art history. It was in fact Diego who had restrained him so I was anxious to eavesdrop on their reunion, but it was drowned out by . . .
—General Idea, “New York Gossip,” File, New York City Edition, 19762

The Poster
“New York/New Wave”

This is followed by the names of 119 participants including such temptations as Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, David Byrne, Shirley Chisholm, Larry Clark, Crash, Diego Cortez (yes, again), Jimmy de Sana, Fab Five, Jedd Garet, Ray Johnson, Joseph Kosuth, Lydia Lunch, Robert Mapplethorpe, John Sex, Screw Magazine, Alan Suicide, and Andy Warhol.3 It reads like an art world rewrite of The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

The Climate
“New York/New Wave” blew into town in the wake of the Guggenheim’s fiasco, “19 Artists—Emergent Americans: 1981 Exxon National Exhibition,” and the Whitney’s inevitably controversial “Biennial.” Suddenly, unexpectedly, it appeared that “NY/NW” at P.S. 1 might actually be the show to beat. Anticipation for the show was built on the kind of negative chemistry that provided John Anderson with his brief moment of notoriety as an alternative to Carter and Reagan. Like Anderson, “NY/NW” was set up to take a fall without ever really being a contender. As it happened, “NY/NW” was judged by the same academic standards necessarily applied to the other two exhibitions; that wasn’t what it was about, and it got trashed.

I Know What I Like
“New York/New Wave” may not be a serious exhibition at all. It may be a neo-Neo-Dada, a raspberry delivered with thumb to nose. If this is the intention—a dare to the art world, a youthful critique—I’m afraid it is a failure. The art itself is not ambitious enough. There is a market for self-indulgence and for the quasi-chic; most of the art here seems aimed for that market. In art, however, nothing wears as poorly as social style.
—John Perreault, Soho News4

The show is often heart-breaking, as one glimpses the meteoric flash of talents and temperaments vanishing into the atmospheres of advertising, hip journalism, fashion, and various artsy or pop coteries. These things are not evil; they are almost literally life-support systems. But they are not to be mistaken for avant gardes, because they advance and reveal and create nothing. They are what art chooses not to be.
—Peter Schjeldahl, Village Voice5

No one seems too clear about what constitutes “punk art”—is it truly a style, or just the lookalike product of a bunch of young music lovers with safety pins in their earlobes? A calm, rational assessment might have provided a good opportunity for clarification. Unfortunately, this fevered exhibition looks less like an explanation than an advertisement for a Club Med-Mudd Club Party.
—Kay Larson, New York6

I mean, wow, the NEW YORK/NEW WAVE show is it, man, woman. Like New Wave music, which is better than just plain music, New Wave Art is noticeably better than just plain art. This is a tidal wave of art, about to reduce the entire art world to limp rubble, particularly the stuff that floats.1 Here’s a whole new art world ready to replace the old one. Of course, the old one is not going to just pack up and move to Chicago because of an art show in Long Island City. But I can tell, they’re scared
—Glenn O’Brien, Interview7

But What Is It?
“NY/NW” is a creative by-product of popular culture.
“NY/NW” encourages no distinction between primary art and art for reproduction.
“NY/NW” reclaims the most worthwhile of the previously dismissed second-rate.
“NY/NW” is antiestablishment but intrinsically elitist.
“NY/NW” heroizes self-absorption.
“NY/NW” adopts the proletarian taste of the past to assault the proletarian values of the present.
“NY/NW” is socially combative and politically retrograde.
“NY/NW” exists, like any New Wave manifestation, to roll on and be replaced.

Helen Lawson speaks
“ . . . I don’t know my ass from my elbow about art,” Helen went on. “But I like to have the best of everything around me.”
Valley of the Dolls8

The Best of Everything (A Quick Tour)
“NY/NW” streaks down a long entrance hall with a claustrophobic wainscoting of vibrant graffiti panels. Skied above the graffiti is a cornice of photographs by Andy Warhol (celebrity candids) and Christopher Makos (Punk lifestyle). Then comes a large central gallery where drawings, paintings, junk assemblages, photographs, and Kinderkunst are hung from floor to ceiling. The stacking principle recalls that used to raise New England’s wandering stone walls. Each of the six rooms off the central gallery is treated as a set piece. The work (photography accounting for easily 70 percent, with 60 percent of that allotted to journalistic photography) serves an esthetic scheme where the whole—not the parts—is clearly the point. And the whole is a collage portrait of Manhattan masquerading as Berlin in the twilight of the Weimar. When one considers how that Jazz Age Götterdämmerung was characterized by skyrocketing inflation, massive unemployment, extremities of lawlessness, and a growing conservative majority, this analogy is not far from the mark.

Neely O’Hara Speaks
“Look, Doc, I don’t know about tests—maybe my inkblots will show I’m some kind of a nut—but I’m not like other people. That’s why I’m a star.”
Valley of the Dolls9

From New Wave to Caligari
Lebenskunstlerinnen (“artists of life”) is how the painter Otto Dix referred to the models he recruited from the Weimar’s nighttown.10 The poisoned glamour that permeates his paintings and those of Christian Schad, or the films of Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst, is courted by many of the participants (both artists and models) in “NY/NW.” A succession of dead-eyed androgynes—their wedge-shaped hairdos mimicking the alert passivity of their poses—evokes Siegfried Kracauer’s analysis of Elisabeth Bergner’s 1926 portrayal of a “half-lad, half-girl”: “The androgynous character she created found a response in Germany which may have been intensified by the existing inner paralysis. Psychological frustration and sexual ambiguity reinforce each other.”11 In other photographs (particularly those by Mapplethorpe, Makos and de Sana) where the sexuality is less muted, the effect is no less inverted. Here, the sitters conform to Pauline Kael’s description of Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola as one “who suggests sex without romance, love, or sentiment.”12 There is something repellent in “NY/ NW’s” sustained portrayal of youth as a territory plagued by emotional vampirism. These contemporary Lebenskunstlerinnen are following in the footsteps of Cesare, the seductive, socially impotent somnambulist in Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One fears that, like Cesare in the clutches of Caligari, they have been programmed for a level of functional alienation where the boundary between hero and victim is hopelessly blurred.

Dead Pans
If the young—the aspiring—are trapped in melodramatic angst, the known—the arrived—are caught in a strobe-lit nightmare. The exhibition’s verité photographs are shockingly pedestrian—paparazzi grab shots of professionally frozen faces emerging from hired limousines, eating catered meals, encircled by frenzied fans. It’s enough to lend credence to the aborigine’s fear that the camera is capable of stealing the soul. In “NY/NW’s” Celebrity Ballroom, there’s not a soul in sight on either side of the camera. This is photography in its most Pavlovian incarnation—the mercenary candid. The subjects of these photographs—Woody Allen, Walter Cronkite, Brian De Palma, Betty Ford, Ed Koch, John Travolta, Diane von Furstenberg—all respond to the camera as if it’s another tomahawk along the gauntlet of fame. The mercenary candid is a genre that Weegee pioneered with a heartless bravado that occasionally resulted in a great photograph. But not here, not once.

The Artist
Andy Warhol’s celebrity photographs are no better than the best in “NY/NW.” Yet, knowing they are Warhol’s, one tends to look a little longer. (Why is Liza Minnelli writhing on the floor; was it something Andy said?) Because we know his photographs were taken from a privileged position, we look for privileged information. It isn’t there; the photographs are interesting only because of his subject’s celebrity. (Jane Doe shaving her armpit simply isn’t the same as Bianca Jagger shaving her armpit.) One is so used to reconsidering Warhol to his advantage that the urge to seek significance is second nature. Even though his photographs aren’t particularly drop-dead, Warhol is still the focus of “NY/NW.” His influence is the most pervasive in the show. He’s the model and the master. What Warhol signifies is the ability to make it in both worlds—art and commerce—and make it big. He has promoted himself as a franchise that is the art world’s answer to McDonald’s. He is safely ensconced as Picasso’s heir to the media and, like Picasso, Warhol has become popular culture’s personification of Artist. His versatility has spilled into virtually every field that calls for visual resolution. He is an intermedia celebrity. Warhol—as photographer—is the first artist one encounters on entering “NY/NW.”

The Publication
Warhol as publisher is also prominently represented; four of the show’s most generously displayed photographers (Bob Colacello, Edo, Christopher Makos and Robert Mapplethorpe) are on the masthead of his tabloid, Interview. For a decade Interview has promoted celebrity as an end in itself. The magazine was and is much imitated by a slew of other tabloid publications whose staying power has been distinctly noncompetitive. The narcissism of Interview’s subject matter—the success of beauty, the beauty of success—permeates “NY/NW,” and the amorality of its intent is seconded with delirious relish.

Anne Welles Speaks
. . . Her headache had spread. It was banging at the backs of her eyes. “I guess it is hard to have integrity in everything,” she said wearily.
Valley of the Dolls13

The Legend
Very much at odds with the show’s existential hedonism is the curious, shrinelike homage to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. One entire wall (perversely halved by a belt of Jimmy de Sana’s elegantly mannered s&m photographs) is reserved for a photographic documentation of their New York residency. The images are among the worst in the show, particularly those taken in that now tragic moment of public accessibility during the couple’s promotion of their Double Fantasy album. What the photographs show is a perfectly pleasant looking couple posing politely, even intimately, for the media. There is nothing that comes close to Annie Leibovitz’s now historic cover photograph for Rolling Stone, where Lennon and Ono willingly acted out the matriarchal symbiosis of their relationship. It is a photograph that could, by virtue of its confrontational self-exploitation, have put some bite into this gratuitous display. Still, in a show dominated by portraits of self-conscious poseurs, even the most banal photographs of Lennon and Ono are sweetly, sadly affirmative. While the couple’s collaboration on Double Fantasy is almost antithetical to New Wave (it’s about curling up in durable love and making pretty ballads and remaking good ’50s rock and roll), their cultural contribution is decidedly avant-garde; and surely New Wave needs to be informed that art can be inclusive and allied with social change, rather than elitist and self-serving.

The Talking Head
The most aloofly formal work in “NY/NW” belongs to David Byrne of the definitive New Wave band The Talking Heads, and recent collaborator with the definitive avant-garde producer Brian Eno. Byrne’s large-format color photographs have the same cool disengagement his performance persona has. Stripped of situational information, his subject matter could be composed of details from an airport waiting-lounge—a bit of gridded light fixture, a pipe against a neutral expanse of wall (or maybe ceiling, or maybe floor). The images are all sharp diagonals and muted colors, sort of autumnal moderne. They are not, however, New Wave. So, why is Byrne in the show? Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, he’s there because he is New Wave. In “NY/NW,” celebrity is the dominant art form (whether real or play pretend). That, as a photographer, Byrne owes more to Ray Metzker than to a New Wave progenitor like Arthur Tress, is irrelevant. Byrne’s participation, not his photographs, is the issue. (Ditto Chris Stein of Blondie, whose edgy, photographic personifications of kitsch objects are also in the show and are also markedly not New Wave.)

Two Women
Deborah Harry of Blondie is the Isabella d’Este of “NY/NW.” It’s hard to believe that she’s had the time to carve out a singing career between photo sessions. Not so surprisingly, her expression seldom changes: it’s stuck in neutral. But she epitomizes a classic, tacky look and, kissed as she’s been by “fame/ remember my name,” she makes the perfect “NY/ NW” muse. Harry’s omnipresence is also helpful in understanding the importance of the New York modification of New Wave. She is the complete New York creation. She drifted in from Jersey and paid her dues, coming up through the clubs with a variety of bands. Now she’s done a “Gloria Vanderbilt for Murjani” TV ad and starred in a movie and hosted Saturday Night Live and established herself as an Important Recording Artist. She’s a potent role model and, in a show where the models dominate the artists, I’d sooner Harry than Anita Bryant.

Competitively trailing Harry for wall space is Patti Smith. Where Smith is more fortunate than Harry is that she has been so consistently observed by Robert Mapplethorpe. While his appreciation of Smith certainly doesn’t achieve the collaborative perfection of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, it does suggest it. And Smith was a New Wave omen. While she has never really achieved or lent herself to the commodity status of Harry, she is the more archival talent. In 1971, when she dedicated her collection of poems, Seventh Heaven, to Mickey Spillane and Anita Pallenberg, it was hard to imagine a more New Wave sensibility.

Mr. Right
Robert Mapplethorpe has managed to pursue his personal obsessions with conspicuous success. His career, which gained visibility through his early photographs of Patti Smith, has grown to accommodate art portraiture, still lifes, hard-core homoeroticism, and luxe commercial accounts that, ten years ago, would have gone to Penn or Avedon. It is a career in which, at least superficially, self-indulgence appears to have paid off. Mapplethorpe’s wall of photographs pulls “NY/NW” together with remarkable clarity. Here, all of the show’s concerns are synthesized and brilliantly resolved. Elegant, dramatic lighting illuminates the protective narcissism of the beautiful flotsam, heightens the charismatic suggestiveness of the famous and authoritatively defines the chilly power of the bluntly sexual. There isn’t a touch of humor in any of it; the work is so rigorously formal it occasionally appears didactic. Yet, for Mapplethorpe, formalism is consonant with directness. His images, whatever the subject matter, are extremely simple—no grand gestures, no glycerine hysteria, no signature gimmicks. It is the clarity of Mapplethorpe’s curiosity that makes his photographs so authoritative.

Acid Flashes
Jean Michel “Samo” Basquiat’s violently active drawings with their repetitive brut scribbles (a line of AAAAAs dominates his alphabetic punctuation), primary expressionist splatters, and skittish renderings of cars and faces . . . Bob Colacello’s mercilessly cynical photograph of those two ravaged troopers, Jimmy Carter and Ginger Rogers . . . Jedd Garet’s dreamy Polaroid narrative which merges a diorama of dinosaurs with a modishly decorated interior . . . Nan Goldin’s color photograph of a male nude caught in a moment of masturbatory despair . . . Duncan Hannah’s strange little collage homages to such off-center icons as Helmut Berger . . . Keith Haring’s pictographic cartoons which incisively depict some radically alternative positions for a boy and his dog . . . Curt Hoppe’s large, nasty gag illustration of Jerry Brown sodomizing Linda Ronstadt while an ecstatic camera-toting Ronald Reagan looks on . . . Jon Rudo’s elementary “bad” drawing of Maria Goretti, hung with a complimentary panel that reads: “She is upheld in Catholic Schools as the perfect example of Christian girlhood” . . . Jane Stein’s knowing, trashy fashion illustrations which comment on ’50s-ish party frocks and lingerie à la Frederick’s of Hollywood . . . Bruno Testore’s sleek drawings that look like costume sketches for the S.A. debauch in Visconti’s The Damned.

Getting It Straight
She swallowed one of the capsules. “All right, little doll. Let’s see what all the shouting is about.” She got into bed and picked up the papers she had tossed on the floor. She began to read. In ten minutes the print began to blur. It was fantastic . . . her head grew light . . . her eyes closed. . . . It was a doll . . . she was going to sleep. Tomorrow she’d think it all out.
Valley of the Dolls14

The Critic Arrives at the Valley
I was drawn to Diego Cortez’s “NY/NW” for the same reasons that I am fascinated by Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. They are both about the drive for success and the chastening toll taken by fame. They appeal to our willingness to accept tabloid myth as truth. Paced for an audience with the attention span of a fruit fly, they make no demands on anything other than our ability to consume. They are large and trashy and unapologetically trite. They are as American and biodegradable as a Big Mac.

Richard Flood writes on contemporary art and popular culture.



1. Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls, New York: Bantam Books, 1981 edition, introduction.

2. General Idea, “New York Gossip,” FILE, New York City Edition, Toronto: Art Official Inc., 1976, p. 26.

3. As it turned out, Acker, Chisholm, Clark, and Lunch did not participate in the exhibition.

4. John Perreault, “Low Tide,” Soho News, Feb. 25, 1981, p. 49.

5. Peter Schjeidahl, “New Wave No Fun,” Village Voice, March 4, 1981, p. 69.

6. Kay Larson, New York, March 16, 1981, p. 60.

7. Glenn O’Brien, “I Am New Wave (Or Something Like That)”, Interview, April, 1981, p. 71.

8. Op. cit. 1, p. 85.

9. Ibid., p. 411.

10. German Realism of the Twenties, The Artist as Social Critic, Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1980, Ida Rigby, catalogue entry on Otto Dix, p. 130.

11. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, A Psychological History of the German Film, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947, p. 161.

12. Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, (New York: Bantam, 1969), p. 296.

13. Op. cit., p. 102.

14. Ibid., p. 476.

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