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the October 1999 issue of Artforum

Cover of Artforum, October 1999.

IN OCTOBER 1999, Artforum devoted a special issue to East Village art—its confounding rise and precipitous fall. I’ve had a copy on my shelf ever since, and regard it as one of the essential postmortems of the scene.

On the cover is a photo of the artists David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo at Pier 34, an abandoned warehouse extending into the Hudson River off Canal Street. At first I wondered why the editors had selected an image from outside the neighborhood, but the pier—and the unauthorized and uncurated “show” that popped up there in 1983—definitely functioned as an East Village satellite, embodying the scene’s best aspirations, featuring many of the same artists, and sharing its meteoric fate in an even more condensed period of time. A major goal in the East Village—in the early days—was to thumb a collective nose at the art establishment. In that cover photo, David stands silhouetted next to a pier window where he’s painted a grotesque art-dealer insect announcing: MY NAME IS TONY SHAFRAZI. . . . MY NAME IS MARY BOONE. . . . I AM YOUR HOPE. And above that the message ARTISTS: STAY IN CONTROL OF YOUR WORK . . . HEARTS + MINDS. In 1983, the scene was just beginning to percolate. In 1984, the pier was demolished, along with all the art that had spread across its walls.

I’ve lived in the part of the East Village once known as Alphabet City since 1977, a couple of years before it was identified in the New York Times as the retail heroin capital of America. The perpetual arson on my block, the guys stripping stolen cars and carrying the parts into an abandoned building across the street, the lone bush struggling in my backyard (curiously accompanied by dozens of toilet plungers)—none of this looked like a cunning location for galleries. But the ways in which I was wrong now seem instructive. For one thing, the slum setting with its ambience of latent danger became a useful marketing tool.

Like many of the writers in this 1999 issue—Carlo McCormick, Gary Indiana, Dan Cameron, et al.—I have written or talked ad nauseam about the East Village over the years. But I was late to the party; I wasn’t even a writer when it all began. In the early 1980s, I was a part-time employee of Artforum, putting layouts together through the lost art of paste-up. That’s where I met David, who came in late one night to borrow money from the magazine’s designer, Keith Davis. And that’s where I met Rene Ricard.

As I remember it, the piece Rene wrote titled “The Pledge of Allegiance” for Artforum’s November 1982 issue—appreciating the first East Village gallery, Fun (1981–83), and analyzing the shifting tectonics that govern value in the art world—actually triggered a small earthquake in SoHo. By the end of that year, five galleries were housed in tiny East Village storefronts. More than 160 would follow.

When I set out in February 1984 to write about the burgeoning scene for my first Village Voice feature, I approached Rene at a SoHo opening and asked whether I could interview him. “Never!” he declared. “I won’t talk about it. I don’t believe in the East Village! Wait! I’ll write it down.” He took me into the gallery office and began to write on a card: “I don’t believe in the East Village. The idea is vulgar and corrupt, a journalist convenience term that has nothing to do with art. Great art surfaces, and to relegate it to neighborhoods is the nadir of vanity.” He wouldn’t even visit the new galleries, he said—except that he had, that very afternoon, but only because a millionaire had driven him around in a limo.

One of the striking things about the October 1999 Artforum is how little “great art” is discussed. I do think at least a bit of great art was produced, but now, thirty years after the scene peaked, what I remember most is the milieu, the personalities, the nightlife. Carlo, identified in the issue as “chief scene spokesman”—and that he was—writes, “There really was a kind of infectious creative euphoria afoot then.” Exactly. I credit Ann Magnuson at Club 57 (1979–83) and Patti Astor at Fun for setting a certain tone of permission and play, which prevailed for a while in both the galleries and the clubs. My own beat was the clubs, where I covered performance. And there I watched everything change after the hype kicked in and the market heated up. Those limos! It did not take long.

I tend to forget the things that bugged me, but Gary’s piece offered a reminder: “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 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.” I was bothered less by the bad art than by some of the poseurs who created it, though I don’t think they ended up with big careers. But I had also forgotten what Gary calls the “struggle for dominance” between the neo-expressionists, many represented by Civilian Warfare, and the neo-Conceptualists, who congregated at Nature Morte—two galleries that opened early and in the same month: May 1982.

“Our aesthetic sympathies lay with the mass-media/institutional-critique artists headquartered at Metro Pictures,” wrote David Robbins in his piece on the neo-Conceptualists. East Village galleries showing that kind of work probably numbered fewer than ten, and they produced a much larger percentage of artists who went on to some acclaim. Ironically, what fit in the least ultimately succeeded the most.

However, neo-dreck emerged from both sides of the neo-battle, along with good work. For me, the most startling line in the whole October 1999 issue appeared in Liza Kirwin’s piece on the legacy of the scene. Someone working at Holly Solomon Gallery told her, “Nobody talks about the East Village anymore, nobody. People are taking it off their résumés.” The neighborhood as a brand that went bad—is this still true? After all, artists who had early (if not first) shows in the neighborhood include Jeff Koons, Kiki Smith, Martin Wong, Judy Glantzman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Sherrie Levine, Greer Lankton, Philip Taaffe, and David. But when Artforum subsequently devoted two substantial issues (March and April 2003) to the art of the 1980s, the East Village came up mostly in the two time lines contributed by David Rimanelli, and there, really, just until 1985.

Page detail from Artforum, October 1999. Section of time line compiled by Liza Kirwin.

Of course, something did go wrong. When I wrote David Wojnarowicz’s biography, I cited Dennis Cooper’s piece in this issue. His description of the artist’s disillusionment with the East Village says so much. David’s first show in the neighborhood (at Civilian Warfare) opened on the same day in June 1983 that police closed the rotting, rickety Pier 34. Cooper describes David’s love for the “black-sheep art world” that the scene then represented. But by 1985, Cooper wrote, “he found himself surrounded by peers whose talent was merely raw, and raw only by virtue of economic hardship, but whose sensibilities were as coddling and self-indulgent as those of the Salles, Fischls, and Longos who populated the official art world. As a consequence, similar delusions of greatness had settled over the scene.”

The story of the East Village has a tragic trajectory. By 1987, the exodus to the “official art world”—then in SoHo—had begun. It was no longer “fun” or practical to show work in some ex-bodega the width of an airplane. Gentrification flattened everyone’s options, AIDS began taking our friends, and the culture war would soon dry up fragile support systems.

The helpful time line Artforum produced for the East Village issue runs from 1979 to 1989. But every participant will have his or her own endpoint. Carlo identifies Mike Bidlo’s performance/party Not Andy Warhol’s Factory as “a closing party for the moment at hand”—the beginning of the scene’s end. This event occurred at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center—in Queens—but East Villagers played all the major Factory roles, dressed as superstars and Velvet Undergrounders. That was in April 1984, which seems early to me for a finale. But scenes that become legends never last. Warhol at the “silver” Factory—the era of Edie Sedgwick, Cow Wallpaper, and Elvis paintings—lasted maybe four years. The renowned Cabaret Voltaire lasted about sixteen months.

I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to be part of the East Village moment. Only two short pieces in this issue relate to my old performance beat—Ann on Club 57 and John Hagan on John Jesurun’s fabled “living film serial,” “Chang in a Void Moon.” Both were gone before I started writing, but I do remember looking at Club 57 calendars that listed some new event for every day—from Putt-Putt Reggae Night to Model World of Glue Night to Elvis Memorial Night. A new episode of “Chang” went up at the Pyramid Club every week. Performance artists today can count on maybe one gig a year; back then, they could work every week. Creative ferment prevailed around the clock.

In the end, I saw too much and so forgot too much, but unlikely moments remain indelible. One night in August 1989 in the broken field of rubble that was ABC No Rio’s backyard, I watched Jack Waters and Peter Cramer stage a version of Siegfried called The Ring OUR Way or DERRINGDERNIEBELUNGEN SIEGFRIED-STODVOLSUNGASAGAEDDA, with Wagner on a beatbox and a slide projector throwing some pastoral image onto the side of an abandoned building. Siegfried appeared in hunting/gathering gear with a plastic sword, while Brünnhilde lay surrounded by votive candles, trying not to laugh. Was it “great”? I didn’t care. See Siegfried at Lincoln Center, and you know what to expect. For me, this was better. Sometimes context is everything.

Cynthia Carr was an arts writer for the Village Voice from 1984 until 2003 and is the author, most recently, of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz.