PRINT March 2003


1981: “New York/New Wave”

THE “’80S” LITERALLY BEGAN WITH “The Real Estate Show,” an “insurrectionary” occupation of a vacant city-owned building at 123 Delancey Street. Literally, because the thirty-five-artist installation dealing primarily with real-estate issues in New York, was “open” for one day: January 1, 1980. It was padlocked by the police on January 2 and “came down” on the 11th when city workers invaded the space and carted off the work—an auspicious beginning for a decade of art.

In June of ’80 the spectacular “Times Square Show,” mounted in an abandoned multistory massage parlor on Forty-first Street and Seventh Avenue, took things to a whole new level. The show was as funky as its surroundings and as lively a happening as had been seen since the ’60s. Artists dropped in and contributed to this nonstop party, a continuous work-in-progress that featured not only the best young artists but also film, video, and live music performances. It brought worlds together—the uptown (as in the Bronx) with the downtown, the theoretical with the impulsive, the vandals with the decorators. A souvenir shop sold cheap multiples by participating artists.

The institutional emergence of this new force took place in mid-February 1981, in the “New York/New Wave” show at P.S. 1 in Long Island City, a spectacular exhibition featuring 119 artists (more or less) and curated by Diego Cortez. Mammoth in scale, “New York/New Wave” offended purists as much by its maximalist approach as by its content. Cortez hung the art from floor to ceiling, throughout the galleries and the halls. He brought together a coalition of punks, No Wave musicians, young painters, graffiti artists, poets, performers, and more radical-type forefathers like Ray Johnson, Lawrence Weiner, William Burroughs, and Andy Warhol to create a museum–as–fun house that engaged the eye and mind relentlessly.

I recently dug up a review in the apparently hip SoHo Weekly News by John Perreault, who seemed offended that the show was a huge hit: “Why so many people? Is the art world eager for a possible new wave slap in the face?” But revisiting the show when the P.S. 1 galleries were closed, he found it “a plain and timid thing.” Joking on the “New Wave” title, he called the exhibition “tidewrack”—i.e., what’s left when the tide goes out.

I also dug up something I wrote about the show in Interview, and it addresses some of Perreault’s concerns in a similar metaphoric vein: “This is a tidal wave of art, about to reduce the entire art world to limp rubble, particularly the stuff that floats.” Here I believe I was casting a jibe at the then popular gallery installations of lumber piles. I continued: “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. And why? I think because here is art based on life, not on art. The public might like it.” I think that was the revolution that began with “The Real Estate Show,” got hot with “The Times Square Show,” and went public with “New York/New Wave.”

Perreault and other mainstream commentators didn’t find much news in “New York/New Wave,” but looking over a list of contributing artists, I find quite a few names who went on to serious things: Kathy Acker, David Armstrong, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Byrne, Sarah Charlesworth, Henry Chalfant, Larry Clark, Arch Connelly, Jimmy de Sana, Dondi, Brian Eno, Fab 5 Freddy, Peter Fend, Futura 2000, Jedd Garet, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, Duncan Hannah, Roberto Juarez, Bill Komoski, Greer Lankton, Lady Pink, Marcus Leatherdale, Arto Lindsay, Judy Linn, John Lurie, Lydia Lunch, Ann Magnuson, Christoper Makos, Robert Mapplethorpe, Frank Moore, Lee Quinones (LEE), Rene Ricard, Kenny Scharf, Kate Simon, Duncan Smith, Kiki Smith, Steven Sprouse, Ken Tisa, Harvey Wang, Larry Williams, Robin Winters. Not only that, but the curator, Diego Cortez, has gone on to create some very modern cocktail piano music.

Alas, that was an age of showmanship and shamanship the likes of which seem most remote today. Not that there is no new wave of art ready to break—I sense its far-off presence, and we’re praying for psychic surf daily—but that idea of art coalescing to reach the public without mediation seems so outside the realm of institutional practice it’s practically dangerous. Nutty world, huh?

Glenn O’Brien is a writer based in New York.