PRINT October 1999

Crime and Misdemeanors

THERE WAS SOMETHING NEVER QUITE CREDIBLE about the explosion of galleries and artists that happened in the East Village in the mid-’80s. It had a feeling about it suggestive of a feral swarm, a feeding frenzy that somehow overwhelmed the thing it supposedly was about, this “art” thing that in Manhattan had always been neighborhood specific or even bar specific—I mean Cedar Tavern specific, or Max’s Kansas City specific, or SoHo specific; an element of contrivance had slipped in, something “simulacral,” to use a word very popular at the time. When you looked at the East Village before and after, the impression was there that the whole thing had been a developer’s wet dream all along, that a huge chunk of fallow property had morphed into a giant cash cow in a magically short time.

You had to have been there at least a little before it all happened, when Second Avenue didn’t have outdoor cafés or, for that matter, many people on it most of the time, and Avenue A was the scary perimeter of no-man’s- land, and the artists all lived in shithole apartments, and Valerie Solanis leaped out at you from doorways on St. Mark’s Place demanding cigarettes and spare change. Nobody really called it the East Village, except maybe the East Village Eye. It had been the East Village back in the ’60s, but in the ’70s everybody called it the Lower East Side. “Lower East Side” had this desperate, bottomed-out ring to it that defined its “charm.” I was robbed at gunpoint more than once on the Lower East Side, talk about charming, and junkies burgled my apartment five or six times by lowering themselves from the roof onto my fire escape. I still live in that apartment, but it’s now in the East Village, where the junkies are all too rich to bother with burglary and nobody pokes a gun in your face on the street. So those of us lucky enough to have had rent control came out ahead, I think.

There were plenty of artists of all types living there before this little boom thing in the mid-’80s. Most of the ones I knew never expected to have any type of commercial success. The biggest thing that ever happened to them was a mention in the Village Voice or the Soho Weekly News. A lot of people like Jack Smith—not that there were ever a lot of people like Jack Smith, but let’s say those similarly allergic to success and to the folks who made success possible—inhabited a muzzy dream of la vie bohème, dedicated to the romantic idea that the true artist always suffers and struggles and is never adequately appreciated in his time. This is a cliché, and to my mind not an especially healthy one, because people who mist themselves in this cliché collect a fierce, uncritical following and never discover what is weak and self-indulgent in their practice.

In any event, the neighborhood was always welcoming to people who defined themselves as artists of any sort, so in the era of amusing fakery it was ripe for exploitation as an artful copy of itself. Reagan was president, Communism was dead, and the idea of doing anything that didn’t make money had begun to look ridiculous to most people. For a few seasons the storefront gallery became the most commonly opened business, followed by the offbeat boutique and the precious little restaurant. The normative style of art featured in the storefront galleries was “neo-expressionism,” of a type that suggested the artist was a wild and crazy misfit, tortured by inner demons, and so forth. Often these paintings depicted emaciated, punky-looking guys with their limbs twisted and bleeding from stab wounds, and when you saw the middle-class white kids making this art, mostly good-looking boys of about twenty whose parents lived in Greenwich, you had to laugh. The most visible galleries and the constellation of proper names emerging from them made up a neat little package of prefabricated angst, something that appealed to a media notion of artists as tantrum-prone infants gifted with uncontrollable, oracular powers—which, when you think about it, wasn’t far from the romantic bohemianism that the neighborhood’s still-obscure, slightly more indigenous artists tended to live by. But it was all rather thick, a kind of mannerist posturing, like someone selling you a vividly decorated used car, and among these very young artists, there was a desperate competitiveness, almost a panic, that the gravy train was passing through just this once and you had damned well better hop on it.

Group shows had an intricate politics about them. Being included or excluded was a matter of tremendous moment, signaling your place or lack of place in the narrative; typically, an artist who perceived his location in the narrative as fragile or peripheral would “curate” a group show to move himself closer to the center. The openings came in exuberant clusters, ten or twenty in a single weekend, with vast herds of art types rumbling down the sidewalks. Exciting, certainly, like any mob scene, and sometimes the shows really looked fabulous, at least for that moment.

I observed most of this from a certain distance, so I couldn’t really tell you who, among the neo-expressionists, turned out to be talented and who ended up as space debris. The East Village galleries that I followed in a serious way—Nature Morte, Jay Gorney, 303, Pat Hearn, Cash/Newhouse—showed Conceptual and photo-derived work that didn’t have the East Village playpen effect. Some of it was probably just as ephemeral in its own brainy way, but it was closer to my taste. There was definitely a struggle for dominance going on between the East Village neo-expressionist trip and the neo-Conceptualist faction, something about “instinctive” versus “intellectual,” and socially, too, the two camps were quite distinct, though the precise details of this have fallen out of my memory. It happened that somewhere in the middle of the East Village phenomenon I became the art critic at the Village Voice, so for three years I had to look at all the art being shown (which became not unlike having to attend a Shriners convention every weekend) and cope with suddenly being hustled by every imaginable and unimaginable person. I became, I think, completely dissociated from the social life this job required me to have, and I remember almost nothing about it. I just remember being very happy when it was over.

It was the best and worst time to have such a job—best from a writer’s point of view, worst from a personal one—because something was taking its course, the forces that were driving the art world into a frenzy were the same ones pushing the country into a so-called free-market economy, into “privatization” and “deregulation” and the glamorization of greed; it was truly the Dickensian moment of post–World War II America, and the art world became, briefly, a site of inflammation, for the stock market had made very rich an array of formerly medium-rich lawyers and dentists and gynecologists who liked pretty things and saw an opportunity to enrich themselves further by buying pretty things cheap and selling them for a fortune later on, a path delineated by Robert Scull in the previous generation. And this thing that was taking its course would inevitably have to pop like a fever blister; even someone as marginal in the economy as I was could see this clearly. A few would still have careers when the fever passed, and a lot of people would find themselves selling Florsheim shoes or computer software. It was sometimes a lot of fun to see this clearly, and to introduce a little note of reality into the careening narrative by means of a weekly column, but it was usually quite depressing, and I remember how quickly the East Village scene wore out its welcome with many people who had more serious stuff on their plates, how hyped it was, how tiresome and transparent its stratagems became. Once the galleries left, there remained yet another patch of Manhattan that only the rich could afford, one less place where a young artist without sharklike career instincts could hole up for twenty years and develop something genuinely interesting. On the other hand, now we have Starbucks and very little breaking and entering, and a lot of people who thought they could never leave Manhattan have discovered the joys of Brooklyn living. What does it matter, really, what you say about a passing scene?

There was a big, flashy, funny party going on for a little while, and even before the stock-market crash in 1987 a lot of galleries went out of business and others migrated to SoHo. The art world got smaller, once more a somewhat parochial little world known mostly to its initiates. You can suffocate in these little worlds if you get them confused with the real world, so the smaller they are, as far as I’m concerned, the less confusion they generate. The artists who had been the rock stars of the mid-’80s gave way to supermodels, who were the rock stars of the late-’80s, followed by rock stars, who are the rock stars of the ’90s. The East Village scene unwittingly accelerated the transformation of Manhattan into the Singapore of America, and Los Angeles into America’s art capital.