reviews

View of “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983,” 2018.

“Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

View of “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983,” 2018.

AND “Club 57: Lost Flyers 1979–83,” Alden Projects™, New York

NEW YORK’S rising rents and the proliferation of sterilized boxes (stores, condos, restaurants) promising this or that lifestyle impels a nostalgia for the grittier, anything-goes city of the late 1970s and early ’80s. Evidence of this sentimental retrospection can be found everywhere—in popular blogs like Vanishing New York, restaurants boasting bullet-hole ridden walls, television dramas like The Deuce and Vinyl, and think-pieces that longingly recount the era’s notorious squalor.

The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983”—organized by MoMA’s Ron Magliozzi and Sophie Cavoulacos with the artist Ann Magnuson—and the concurrent “Club 57: Lost Flyers 1979–83” organized by Alden Projects™ celebrated the fabled nightclub and outlined its influence on the ’80s East Village art scene through the work and ephemera of actual participants, avoiding the sensationalist tendencies of those who conjured it second-hand. The sprawling mix of posters, flyers, photographs, costumes, paintings, sculptures, music, films, and videos that comprised the MoMA exhibition found a fitting home in the subterranean galleries. There, the slate-gray painted walls, low ceilings, ad hoc arrangement of misfit chairs, and narrow, windowless rooms echoed the DIY, no-budget atmosphere of the titular venue, which occupied the basement of a Polish church on Saint Mark’s Place. Holy Cross Polish National Church at 57 Saint Mark’s, looking to rent the space for a little extra money, could never have anticipated the wild goings-on that would turn their dank basement into a cultural incubator for the downtown avant-garde, thanks to two of Club 57’s founding curators who loomed large throughout the show: Keith Haring, who held one of his first solo exhibition there, and Magnuson, who promoted performance artists like Joey Arias and John Sex and managed its busy calendar. Examples of those calendars in the exhibition, hand-drawn and collaged by Magnuson, conveyed just how diverse the Club’s programming was, its member-based events offering far more whimsical and experimental fare than venues like the Pyramid Club, CBGB’s, and The Mudd Club. From dinner theater nights serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with vomit bags, and ribald sendups of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker to Joan of Arc–themed bake-offs, mock debutante balls, and reggae dance parties, the Club’s theme-driven nights, and nerd-friendly attitude distinguished it from the start.

Many luminaries of the scene—among them Deborah Harry, Grace Jones, Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy), and Jean-Michel Basquiat—were featured in the grid of slideshows that greeted viewers on the museum’s ground floor. The images, shot by club members including April Palmieri and Harvey Wang, depict everyone having a good time. Yet a few party faces remain anonymous, evoking the club’s inclusive, open-door policy, which the hundreds of works hung salon-style downstairs also conveyed. This faithfulness to the club’s democratic core, and its Dada-esque spirit of subversive play, were the exhibition’s greatest strengths. By gathering together forgotten and known talents amid a cacophony of voices and genres, the show underscored the power of a collective underground at a time when such models—especially in the art world—have few corollaries (the roving collective House of Ladosha and the Ridgewood club The Spectrum being notable exceptions).

Club 57’s antihierarchical structure also allowed many signature elements of the post-punk era to collide in a heady mix of “high” (intermedia, performance, Neo-expressionism, Super 8, Xerox and mail art, experimental theater, art rock) and “low” (Day-glo colors, androgynous fashion, garage rock, male burlesque, women’s wrestling, graffiti, and variety shows). Given that many of those pictured smiling in the archives were simultaneously addressing the growing AIDS epidemic and actively participating in the gay-rights movement that flourished in the decade prior, the collaborative atmosphere had a political impetus as well.

View of “Club 57: Lost Flyers 1979–83,” 2018.

Several works in the MoMA exhibition hinted at this by clearly anticipating the identity politics and queer-centric art that arrived soon after: in particular, Kitty Brophy’s delicate surrealist line drawings of masked female nudes with hoofs for feet engaged in erotic play (Deep Inside, 1979) and the darkly comic photographic self-portraits of Tseng Kwong Chi dressed in a Mao suit in front of Western monuments (East Meets West, 1981, and Cape Canaveral, 1985).

The importance of archives in the exhibition cannot be overstated. Not only did it illuminate the vast array of eclectic nightly programming, it reminded viewers of the collaborative ethos behind the club’s success and hinted at the centrality of the club to its members at the time. The flyers, handbills, posters, and newsletters on view at Alden Projects™, nearly all of which are unsigned, evinced the same while also emphasizing the importance of the emergent medium of Xerox art. In a vitrine dedicated to the popular Monster Movie Club, for example, the related materials on display combine hand-drawn elements, typed text, and found images in artful designs that recall psychedelic art, advertising, and Dada collage. As with most ephemera, it’s up to the viewer to fill in what is missing and to imagine the people and events to which they refer. For artists looking for alternative ways to respond to gentrification, the participatory energy that emanates from these throwaway items should serve as a call to action.

“Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983” ran October 31, 2017 through April 8, 2018.

Jane Ursula Harris is a writer based in New York.