PRINT October 1999

East Side Story

WHEN I CALLED THE HOLLY SOLOMON GALLERY in SoHo in 1997 to ask about their 1985 East Village show, the man who answered the phone was aghast. “What are you doing?” he asked incredulously. “Nobody talks about the East Village anymore, nobody. People are taking it off their résumés.” After several years of conducting research, I had come to expect this kind of response. My informants often laughed at the very idea of writing a doctoral dissertation on the East Village art scene of the ’80s. At the same time, they sized up its promotional potential. Was I writing a book? When would it be published? Nobody was talking, but everyone had a story to tell.

Though I’m an outsider, I have my own East Village story. In 1986 I visited my friend Sheila Hoban, who worked at the Frick Art Reference Library and put up exhibitions in her apartment on Second Avenue. It was Valentine’s Day. A light snow was falling when we set out for an evening of gallery hopping, I in a borrowed green sequined dress and a pair of spike heels from a secondhand store on East Seventh Street. We went to Macyn Bolt’s opening at Hal Bromm on Avenue A. Bolt, a sculptor who lived and worked under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, had made wall-mounted figures of carved and painted Styrofoam, but the main attraction was a man named Mr. Sexy, who was peddling his newsletter of exhibition reviews at the door. We roamed the streets from one opening to the next, then made an appearance at Kamikaze before ending up at a party for Bolt at a collector’s condo near Westbeth.

Thinking back on that night, on the crush of happy people about my age who packed the galleries, I remember the air of excitement, as if the East Village were the epicenter of the art world. (I also recall that the bathrooms and closets at the condo were crammed with people snorting cocaine.) The next day a gallery worker (at Vox Populi?) pestered me about buying one of the paintings then on display (I can’t recall the artist’s name or even what the work looked like). They were forty dollars apiece during a one-day-only sale, cash and carry. Though I didn’t buy anything, I was mightily impressed by the style of the scene—the open avenues of possibility, the frontier mentality, the aggressiveness of the sales pitch, the self-representation, the unpretentiousness of it all. This, I thought, was quintessentially American. I admired the way that these artist-entrepreneurs openly traded on the intertwined fortunes of art, entertainment, and commerce, which had covertly defined the Western art world since the late nineteenth century.

I returned to Washington and my job at the Smithsonian and forgot about the East Village until I needed a topic for a graduate seminar in 1990. My research grew from a fairly simple question: What exactly happened to that vibrant scene?

The man I talked with at Holly Solomon had shown his paintings in the East Village at Civilian Warfare. He said I wouldn’t know his name, and he was right. He was one of the thousands of participants who now look back and wonder what happened. How could a cultural phenomenon that generated a mountain of positive press and launched hundreds of art-world careers have become so passé? How could the art of the East Village, which had once engendered so many gallery and museum shows, not to mention feature articles and reviews in the art magazines, now be dismissed in its entirety? How could something once thought to be so good become something so bad that artists were expunging it from their résumés?

According to Jeff Perrone, writing in the December 1984 issue of Arts Magazine, the East Village was “unavoidable dinner topic numero uno” in the New York art world of the mid-’80s; a decade later there was silence. When I interviewed artist and editor Walter Robinson in 1994 in his office at Art in America, he closed the door as if fearing his colleagues would overhear him. “This is embarrassing,” he began. “I had this idea that the East Village could be anything and we could all use it and it was our defense against the outer world. . . . But then what happened of course, was that I was wrong. The outer world took over the East Village and took it away from us and made it mean what it wanted it to mean instead.”

While the East Villagers themselves remembered the scene as an extraordinary, personally transformative experience, they also wanted to distance themselves from its various negative associations. Robinson summed up the received wisdom succinctly. “What did the East Village mean? Bad expressionism, right? Graffiti art?” Not only had “East Village art” been devalued in the press, but many participants recalled the scene as a kind of adolescence (with all the attendant social cliques, inflated egos, and silliness) that had been played out in the media. My informants perceived my project as a celebratory investigation—they thought I was trying to redeem the scene—which was partially true. They saw the interviews as a chance to make it good again.

I chose to interview individuals who had been media stars, as well as those whose participation was barely noted in the press. They were all, however, savvy, cynical, and hip to projecting and protecting their own interests. Stephen Lack, for example, introduced himself by saying, “I’ve structured myself to capitalize on my own vulnerabilities.” Significantly, he saw resemblances between the East Village and fauvism: “If you look at when the East Village had its heyday, which would be from 1981 to 1986, well, people say that was a short time. But, then, what years were the fauves popular? You know, they had a short run, then it died down. Then all of a sudden it became like a school. ‘Oh yeah, he’s a fauve.’” With a wink, they would tell me that only the cognoscenti were capable of detecting the scope and significance of obscure schools like fauvism or, say, the East Village.

Rick Prol, whose paintings were exemplary of neo-expressionism East Village–style, asserted, “I feel like that role and what happened serves me better now because there is such a distance from it. It’s safely in the past and people can now romanticize about it. Great. I hope they make my career over again—not that I’m not doing well.” Clearly Prol was working all the angles. This game of awareness was noted by Dan Cameron in the February 1986 issue of Arts Magazine, where he observed that Prol “thinks we know that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he knows that we know that he knows.”

It stands to reason that the participants wanted the scene to be “safely in the past.” Even the most marketable artists had laid it to rest. In a note to me, Rodney Alan Greenblat penned a sweet little skull and crossbones, which he captioned “East Village art scene R.I.P.” The scene could be poison. Buster Cleveland got straight to the point: “I’m glad, sort of, that I never became famous out of the East Village, because that would have ruined my career. I think it ruined a lot of people’s careers.”

The greed, competition, and hollow hype were, for many, quickly followed by the closing down of opportunities when the phones stopped ringing. “It was really touching,” recalled Annie Herron of Semaphore East, “just because everybody was so young. . . . They went through the whole gamut of getting into shows and then getting very successful very fast, and then, like, having it end overnight.”

For some the end of the scene was swift and catastrophic; for others it slowly petered out. I heard an array of explanations—rising rents, bad press, the stock market crash of 1987, the aids epidemic, the triumph of thinking art over feeling art, as well as the relentlessly threatening environment of the Lower East Side.

While everyone had a story to tell about the rise and demise of the East Village, the overall evaluations of the scene were surprisingly similar. The Villagers described their lives then as “theater,” “playing to an audience,” and creating a “persona,” but more often they compared the East Village to high school. Judith Glantzman said, “It was kind of like a high school party we never had.” Painter Ann Shostrom, who maintained a studio in the East Village for many years, remarked, “It was like being in high school or something. You’d see the same people all the time, and virtually every night there was some event that was free and maybe had an open bar. It was very easy to have no money and go to clubs all the time if you were an artist.” Dealer Steven Adams (of Limbo Lounge and, later, the Steven Adams Gallery) agreed: “It was high school for a bunch of kids who never had a high school life. It was basically a city of misfits.” “We were all kinds of nerds,” said Glantzman.

There was the security of cliques with their almost familial solidarity. As Mike Bidlo put it, “These little factions started. . . . I don’t think people were taking a broad enough view of everything and everyone. . . . On the other hand, it was very nurturing and comforting that you knew you had friends and that you could go out and drop in the gallery and talk with people and go there on Sundays and hang out—it was exciting to exchange information and ideas.”

Like high school writ large, the East Village had its own band (the East Village Orchestra), its own newspaper (the East Village Eye), its own social clubs (8BC, Pyramid), and even a yearbook (published by Roland Hagenberg in 1985 and 1986). The East Village also had its honors society—a distinct strain of intellectualism emanating first from Nature Morte, then from Cash/Newhouse, International With Monument, and a handful of other venues. And while there were no sports per se, the East Villagers spoke at length about “recreational” drugs and drinking. For many, substance abuse was the extracurricular activity of choice, and to some extent artists expressed a common bond with the local drug trade, equating their fringe status in the art world with the illegal, street-level commerce of cocaine and heroin. Quick sales were in character with the neighborhood. “It was a very party scene,” recalled Marisa Cardinale of Civilian Warfare. “We had monthly shows, and as the galleries multiplied the parties would multiply so you would go from one to the other to the other. . . . We drank a lot of vodka [at the openings and] people would smoke grass very openly. Drugs were available and everyone was very involved in that.” Bill Stelling, cofounder of the Fun Gallery, noted, “Everyone in the East Village was involved in this really roaring social scene. . . . So there was this real kind of ferment going on. Everybody knew everybody’s business. It was the most incestuous kind of scene.”

It was both intensely social and intensely competitive. “We stayed up all hours. We did everything ourselves,” explained Cardinale. “Everybody wanted to win and be the best. This was the 1980s, I mean. We wanted to make money and the artists wanted to make money. . . . We worked very, very, very hard to sell.” She summed up the heady, gold-rush atmosphere of art on a new frontier: “Somebody came in and bought a bunch of Wojnarowiczes and spent $10,000 in cash and we laid the money out on the floor, all the bills. I don’t remember what size the bills were, but we had never seen that kind of money before in our lives. . . . It covered the whole floor and we rolled around in it. It was really outrageous. It was fun.”

It’s fashionable to write the East Village off as a simulacrum of bohemia—more the product of the media than any individual or communal achievement. But perhaps the East Villagers were “true” bohemians, if you take bohemianism to be a self-conscious construction, a chosen role. My informants certainly understood that to be an authentic bohemian is to engage in a pose. They had fun with it while reaping the benefits of a boom cycle. Selling themselves was their most subversive act. They thought they would be famous forever. Maybe they will be.