New York

“East Village USA”

As I dipped into the foreword of the catalogue for “East Village USA,” the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s survey of the rollicking scene that sprang to life on the mean streets of New York’s Alphabet City circa 1981 and vanished as quickly some half-dozen years later, I experienced a start of recognition. Like the show’s mastermind, New Museum senior curator Dan Cameron, I lived in the East Village as the scene bustled into being and cut my teeth there as a critic. But it was not these biographical details that served as my proverbial madeleine, so much as Cameron’s surprising confession that, back then, he was as skeptical as he was enthralled.

My own tastes at the time ran more to Metro Pictures (at that point still on Mercer Street) than to FUN Gallery or Gracie Mansion; “real” art, it seemed to this very green college grad, must necessarily exist out there in some bigger, less-accessible world—like Europe or, at the very least, SoHo. As a student at the Whitney Independent Study Program, besotted with The Pleasure of the Text and chastened by neo-Marxist polemic, I found the burlesque of bohemia at my stoop a little unreflective. Yet mixed up with my incredulity was a note of decided fascination: While I sat hunched over the seminar table, nose deep in an annotated copy of Writing Degree Zero, a little voice kept whispering in my ear: The juice is elsewhere—the juice has GOT to be elsewhere!

I’m still not sure the voice meant that scruffy grid of blocks east of the Bowery, but there was something exhilarating (“intimidating,” in Cameron’s assessment) in the fevered acts of self-invention that fueled this makeshift Montmartre. The East Village was all about bad manners, the bad manners to write oneself into culture. Hang out a sign and see who showed up—that was the rallying cry in the hood. And show up they did: When the town cars began to wend their way into alphabet land, you could all but make out those playhouse P. T. Barnums high-fiving behind their skinny storefronts. The umbilical cord that connected the scene to that other East Side uptown reliably pumped down its nutritional bullion for just over half a decade. And then it was over. But by the time that lifeline clamped closed, a handful of figures—Jeff Koons, Nan Goldin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, to name the most obvious—were poised to take their place in that bigger, “real” world of art.

What to say of this vivid and contested moment? And further, how to say it? Faced with an admittedly ungainly subject and inhibited, one can only guess, by restricted space in temporary galleries that make the Manasquan Community Center look like the Menil, Cameron stuck to the art. While the show included an obligatory smattering of period press clippings, a wall-size collage of, I thought, capriciously selected ephemera, and a lot of documentary photos of the players, the material remained incidental, never approaching a detailed archaeology. In principle, I have no quibble with this art-first wager; the archaeological approach, after all, can easily topple under its own weight. Yet despite his self-imposed focus, Cameron nonetheless lost his way in tackling that old survey curator’s bugbear: inclusiveness versus depth. The range of artists featured—vagaries of individual taste aside—was tight without feeling aggressively exclusive. But when it came to the depth with which individual figures were represented (particularly a number of very influential ones), things started to get weird. Koons, to make my point, was represented by precisely one work—a fastidiously cast bronze raft from his first solo at International with Monument, the Seventh Street gallery where he exhibited until his celebrated defection to Sonnabend and SoHo. Although this selection made sense given the work’s place in the arc of Koons’s career, on its own it failed to capture the sense of his art—let alone its period reciprocities and ripples into the present. And Basquiat (a star by most counts, even if not my special enthusiasm) was represented, almost perversely, by three modest drawings. One appreciated the impulse to offer more than a survivor’s tale—that is, to include figures less celebrated today—but at a certain point Cameron’s dissing of the stars felt counterproductive, robbing the moment of any rightful priority with respect to the art that succeeds it. It’s a little like mounting a survey of Cubism and representing Picasso with one solid picture and shoehorning Léger in with a minor canvas.

Not every artist faired so poorly in terms of numbers: High-camp charmers like Arch Connelly and Nicolas Moufarrege did fine; Goldin was well represented with three indelible (if horribly hung) classics; and sacred cow David Wojnarowicz—whose tiny burning houses stenciled on bricked-up storefronts and tenement-alley walls helped to ignite the neighborhood—rated an early-ish work and a later one. I was positively perplexed by the attention lavished on Becky Howland, not just because her three enormous works (to Koons’s modest one!) were lame, but because their appearence here seemed startlingly capricious given the exclusion of object makers of the first order like Alan Belcher, Joel Otterson, and Jennifer Bolande. And what happened to the two-woman team Wallace and Donohue or, to dig a little deeper, to Ti Shan Tsu, whose meticulously tiled-and-grouted sculptures made for a memorable Pat Hearn debut?

A matter of taste? Of course—but not just taste. If the East Village was a microcosm of the “real” art world, so too did its factions mirror the warring tribes of SoHo: Metro Pictures–style conceptual photography and the updated readymade held sway at Nature Morte (and later International with Monument and C.A.S.H. Gallery), while Village versions of the big-time neo-expressionists showed alongside the graffitists and folk primitivists at Gracie Mansion, FUN, and Civilian Warfare. Cameron, presumably with truth to period in mind, gave the latter camps equal or better time, though it seems to me that retrospection lends the former a certain unavoidable priority today, and in stinting on that side of the scene, Cameron shot himself in the foot. Indeed, like Koons, the rest of the so-called Sonnabend four (Meyer Vaisman, Peter Halley, and Ashley Bickerton) were all reduced to single works, as was spiritual sibling Haim Steinbach. Without a strong archaeological component to the show, the art must do the labor, must be made to tell a story—that is, if the exhibition is not to turn into a grab bag of homeless objects. But when it comes to the neo-geoists (to cite that camp’s most inapposite moniker), the offerings were too stingy to allow individual accomplishments to breathe or dialogue. In this sense, Cameron failed to connect the dots, to catch those currents that earn the East Village its place in the larger narrative of contemporary art.

If the excitement was, from the start, as much entrepreneurial as it was artistic, there was ever the hovering sense that the simulacral bohème was hot-wired to period truths that must, in turn, bear back on the scene’s most powerful artistic distillates. In its speeded-up repetitions and regurgitations of past styles and tastes, in its self-conscious vamping (think even of the names—faux debutante, in the case of dealer Patti Astor, and mercantile spoof over on Fifth Street at C.A.S.H.), this high/low feeding frenzy brought subcultural hybrids (the stylized criminality of graffiti, the samplings of scratch, the posing of drag) into league with the pop cannibalizations of a Richard Prince or the artful appropriations of a Sherrie Levine on the post-Warholian mainframe.

Teasing out these exchanges and reciprocities, both in their local effluence and in their indelible artistic products, should have been the purpose of the show. But how were we to know, for instance, that artists like Vaisman and Peter Nagy were also dealers, let alone to assimilate their dual functions into the fabric of the art without a little help? How were we to intuit from the bold and amusing 1986 canvas, A Friend of Dorothy, 1943—with its litany of homosexual epithets as outsize concrete poetry—that McDermott & McGough soft-shoed and sang their way across the new bohemia in Edwardian drag as part of an extended experiment in “time travel”? And how to appreciate that Prince’s appropriated photo of a lubricated, prepubescent Brooke Shields, shown here as a discrete object, actually constituted the artist’s first great performative exploit when it was exhibited on its own in a Rivington Street storefront, titled, for the occasion, Spiritual America? From deified Koons to demonized Kostabi (too pregnant a symptom to have been left out here, though he was), the post-Warholian precedent, and particularly the performative side of his legacy that lately begets a Cattelan or a Murakami, should have been a strong ideational thread in this show but was knotted before it had time to unravel.

An East Village denizen and prolific critic, Cameron was uniquely suited to this curatorial endeavor, and he did show his stuff with knowledgeable selections of performance art and less-formal cabaret fare. I had not thought for some time about director/performer John Jesurun, once among my very favorite artists, represented here by a video of his cycle “Chang in a Void Moon,” 1982–83, which enjoyed its first run at the Pyramid Club, a cabaret-and-dance spot where patrons would come each week to follow it like a TV serial. A kind of Beckett meets Charles Ludlum meets (a stretch?) Whit Stillman, Jesurun gave us an indelible dream-time repartee, a multivoice Tourette’s rap both estranging and hilarious. The show also came to life precisely when Cameron broke the all-art posture and showed us how his chosen objects emerged from within their milieu—as, for instance, in the case of a monitor mounted among the paintings (Charlie Ahearn’s 1981 film Wild Style brought the hit-and-run graffiti aesthetic alive the way tagged canvases and documentary photographs simply couldn’t).

Will the East Village be remembered as a colorful symptom of the expansive and expanding market of the ’80s or as the fertile testing ground for some of the most significant artists of the period? It is tedious (and presumptuous) to legislate such matters, and in this respect, one does not rush to fault Cameron’s low-key roundup. When I showed up in New York in 1981, the very year customarily cited as the start of the East Village scene, I came with a crate of October back issues that led me to the Whitney studios, but I also had in tow my Sugar Hill Gang twelve-inch and a well-worn copy of No New York, the protopunk anthology that inspired me to follow Arto Lindsay’s No Wave band DNA to no fewer than five venues that first summer. The neighborhood scene caught this fledgling critic’s eye because it opened a crack between the then-ossified alternative spaces and the moribund mainstream. In short, the mishmash of art and everything on offer brought together a lot of threads. It never exactly tied them up with a bow, and neither, for that matter, did Cameron’s show. Deferred closure is fine—even comforting—for those who lived the scene, but the “burden” of retrospection, to say nothing of the challenge of reaching new audiences, demands a little more.

Jack Bankowsky is editor at large of Artforum.