September, 1985

'Money Changes Everything'
The East Village Art Mart
by C. Carr

THE POSTMODERN AURA: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation
by Charles Newman
Northwestern University Press, $24.95
$9.95 paper

ABC NO RIO DINERO: The Story of a Lower East Side Gallery
Edited by Alan Moore and Marc Miller
ABC No Rio with Collaborative Projects, $12

NEO YORK: Report on a Phenomenon
University Art Museum, Santa Barbara, $15

Institute of Contemporary Art
University of Pennsylvania, $12 paper

EASTVILLAGE 85: A guide. A Documentary
Pelham Press, $4.95 paper

Across a field of lush rubble, I could see two brides headed for Avenue D. It was 1977, and I took note of such things--the surrealism of everyday life between avenues C and D. A television explodes in a vacant lot. I watch a man calmly smashing through a windshield with a brick. When frightened, I got out the rose-colored glasses. Looked around with art eyes. I don't belong here. I felt an odd affection for the burnt blasted landscape, but I knew it would change. I could see the real estate frontier moving crablike, slowly, inexorably eastward.

No one predicted it would scrape into view looking like a hot scene. With a Found Generation.

After the galleries opened here, I waited for them to close. More quantity than quality. It can't last. But they flourished. They multiplied. Soon we had "East Village" everything all over the photo spreads. That meaningless term. It'll die. Instead it was heard round the world. I had made the mistake of thinking this phenom was about art. I even thought calling the scene "commercial" was a put-down, only to see its most fervent apologists embrace commercialism as something positive. Then I began to understand. East Village Eye critics Carlo McCormick and Walter Robinson cheerfully described the East Village as "a marketing concept" that "suits the Reagan Zeitgeist" in a long Art in America piece last summer. And the neighborhood itself, with its garbage, its junkies, my old block between C & D that lost half its buildings to arson? "An adventurous avant-garde setting of considerable cachet." Such attitudes are more shocking than any artwork can hope to be in 1985.

Charles Newman doesn't realize that he's written a book about the East Village. He thinks The Postmodern Aura is about literature, but the act of painting is much like his "act of fiction in an age of inflation." Newman's argument expalins the East Village phenom perfectly. And implies that if it hadn't happened here, it simply would have surfaced on another map: the brazen ascendency of the market and the new capitalist avant-garde. Pluralism is just a way to give the consumer a choise of brands. Of course, it's hardly new to point out that paintings are commodities. What seems unique, though, in the postmodernism Mewman describes is that commodity value is everything. Reminds me of that East Village painter who told the Eye that his paintings were "doorways into collectors' homes."

It goes beyond money. Newman speaks of the inflation of expectations, the inflation of discourse, the "social inflation" that allows us to absorb ideas quickly, then discard them. "Thus we are witness to continual internecine warfare and spasmodic changes in fashion, the simultaneous display of all past styles in their infinite mutations, and the continuous circulation of diverse and contradictory elites, which signal the reign of the cult of creativity in all areas of behavior, an unprecedented nonjudgemental receptivity to Art, a tolerance which finally only amounts to indifference."

I remember a friend's lament: "When I decided to become a painter, the world wasn't so full of painters. Where'd they all come from?" With more galleries, more artists, more buyers, more paintings--not to mention more dollars spent--the value of any individual vision goes down. Taken to its logical conclusion, this devaluation changes what "art" is.

I'm dismayed to see evidence for this point of view all over the neighborhood. As Carlo McCormick puts it in his supplement to NEO YORK, it's "the most capitalist art ever produced." The major innovations of the East Village all have to do with marketing and sales, with redefining what galleries, dealers, and collectors can be. It's possible, for example, to enter a gallery here and find prints or drawings spread all over the tiny floor at the feet of some potential buyer who's saying, "I need something for the office. I can spend such-and-such."

Newman thinks "a good case can be made for capitalist consumer culture as the Avant-Garde of our time." Traditionally the avant-garde stimulated bourgeois revulsion. It was the thorn built into Modernism's side. But art no longer has the power to shock. "As the middle class absorbs Avant-Garde style, it is precisely the cheap antiestablishment product which is most ptomotable," Newman points out. Anything spectacularly different gets picked up by the media as The Next Big Thing.

In NEO YORK, Walter Robinson refers to the East Village as "an art-world conspiracy greased by hype and p.r." Now that the market rules, this phantom art village and its dealers have cornered the media coverage once directed at artists. ABC NO RIO DINERO collects many of the most illuminating articles written as the scene was developing--from puff pieces to hoarse outcries. The book shows how it emerged from the sometimes overlapping but sometimes contradictory approaches of the New Wavers in the clubs and the political "anti-space" artists at Fashion Moda, Group Material, and Colab. Such was the flavor of the Lower East Side in the early '80s, before it turned into the Global East Village. Ann Magnusan performing in the clubs ("I dreamed I Was an Androgynous Rock Star in My Maidenform Bra"), Adam Purple planting his Garden of Eden, Richard Goldstein stalking the "anti-spaces." In particular, DINERO documents the efforts of one noncommercial gallery, ABC No Rio, to deal with the contradictions of its very existence in the neighborhood.

The first '80s artists to show on the Lower East Side were "political" and acutely aware of bringing their work into a startlingly anti-art world context. I'm talking about the infamous hit-and-run Real Estate Show, closed by police after one day, January 1, 1980. About 35 artists--their boltcutters in a guitar case--managed to break into an abandoned city-owned building on Delancey Street. Few people ever saw the work, aimed at "celebrating insurrectionary urban development." But no matter. In retrospect, the Real Estate Show was a conceptual project, the idea that it happened much more consequential than anything exhibited.

The show started debates that are still unresolved, and DINERO covers it thoroughly. In an excerpted conversation with the co-directors of Fashion Moda, the street-smart South Bronx gallery, one of them says that the Real Estate Show was an inspiration. Another says many community people thought it was just artists upset at having no place to show. How much can white middle class artists really identify with the impoverished people they don't want to displace but inevitably will? In this case, the city's response to their outlaw agitprop was to give them another building near the one they'd tried to seize. It became ABC No Rio (its name lifted from a sign fragment across the street).One of the idealists involved promised in a letter to Skyline (an architecture magazine): "...wherever artists have formed a community a certain atmosphere has taken hold. In the past, artists have been forced to move on once they had adequately defined new real estate values. This time, on the Lower East Side, they intend to stay put and help determine the area's evolution." This was 1980.

In the shabby basement ambience of the No Rio storefront, the artists struggled to relate to their Hispanic neighborhood in theme shows like "Murder, Suicide, and Junk," "Animals Living in Cities," and "The Island Show." Sometimes what emerged was white middle-class artists struggling to understand a culture alien to them. Reviewing a show called "Unforgettable Moments, drawn by real life people," Lucy R. Lippard remarked, "...it's necessary to ask why it's always the most romanticized and stereotyped vision of the underclass that's represented...Lacking political analysis of the battle actually going down in these communities, ar that doesn't mean to do so simply reinforces the oppression it pictures."

What could they have done differently at No Rio? A good question. But including such criticism along with the successes acknowledges the ongoing problem artists face as they work in gentrifying nieghborhoods. (The other books here ignore the issue beyond a mention.) A story in one of DINERO's appendices illustrates the ongoing dilemma. City Arts Workshop and Adopt-a-Building sent artists to Avenue C to decorate a block-long stretch of abandoned buildings--all but one belonging to the city. People living in the neighborhood requested that the murals depict the lively little capitalist ventures they didn't have, and still don't: fake newsstand, grocery, laudromat, record store. The supervising artist, Joe Stephenson, said, "We are astonished and almost insulted by the fact that the City, which refuses to develop this area, is at the same time giving money to make these paintings to give an illusion of life...Maybe the City hopes that with the facade of Avenue C the future buyers won't be discouraged from investing in this area..."

I don't have any nostalgia for good old days between C & D, the ways it terrified or charmed me. Looking out a window to locate a noise last night, I saw a gang of men in berets carrying sticks, moving slowly in a know from one parked car to the next, breaking glass, beating someone up. I could have been on another planet. Today I saw another group of men fanned out across the street behind pushbrooms, cutting a swath through a neighborhood built from garbage. Whatever the pulse to this place was, it din't quite register with me. Of course, I was never as close to the edge as my neighbors were. I didn't belong.

Now it's getting whited out. Last year one young dealer took me up to her amazingly filthy apartment full of broken furniture and art from her gallery. She served me some instant in a dirty cup and announced, "This is how we live on the Lower East Side." I asked her how long that had been. A few months, it turned out. She'd moved down from the Upper East Side. I guess poverty seemed like a cool new lifestyle, what with all its "cachet."

Punk had embraced urban decay before a single gallery opened. The neighborhood starrin many of the great Super-8 films of the late '70s, the "No Wave" days when Loisaida was, I guess, the physical manifestation of Lydia Lunch's malaise. In the Super-8 masterpiece "She Had Her Gun All Ready," filmmaker Vivienne Dick pans across a room--empty but for a bored Lunch and a TV--finds a window and zooms slowly to the eyeless and broken buildings between C & D. The perfect punk juxtaposition.

But it too fell victim to a capitalist takeover. Raw ambience moved into fashion spreads and softened our eyes. The bleak and the crude began to look pretty hip.

DINERO includes Tim Rollins of Group Material interviewing "Richard of East 13th Street." The activist Group Material had opened a storefront gallery on his block in 1981. Richard says he likes some of the art he's seen, but he's puzzled by some of the artists. "It's like a lot of bored people from good backgrounds getting into the bad of the neighborhood. And here we are struggling like hell to get rid of the bad, you know? We find no romance in junk and shit."

Elsewhere in the book, Rollins criticizes New Wave artists as "the middle class making fun of itself."

The first commercial galleries in the East Village began whimsically, almost as parodies of the real thing. The most famous example, Gracie Mansion, had her first show in her "loo." No one realized it was going to get so serious.

Mired in inertia at the end of the '70s, the art world was aching for an act of artistic rebellion to kick it in the teeth. It always manages to make money on that. The astonishing success of the Times Square Show--sponsored by Colab in 1980--proved how bored everyone was with sleek white walls, with hushed propriety in art's presence. Art in America's review of this month-long exhibit in a former massage parlor discussed the work's presentation and its accessibility. How direct it all was: "entertainment, sexual expression or communication of political messages." How wrong it would have looked in an elegant or even clean setting: "art must come to be marketed with the kind of imagination displayed by this exhibition's organizers."

These lessons from the "anti-space" were confidently applied in the East Village when the scene began. With a helping of the New Wave panache that said anyone could do anything in any area of the culture without training and with little cash.

"We are prospectors of slum vintage," wrote Edit deAk, art critic and early champion of the hiphop and club scenes, in 1981. "We have taken your garbage all our lives and are selling it back to you at an inconceivable markup."

Early in its history, "East Village" implied a flashy neo-expressionist look. That it no longer does is clear in one glance at the NEO YORK catalogue with its neo-everything, its post-pop, abstracted graffiti, new surrealism, glorified kitsch. The book's essays include Dan Cameron's personalized history, and Walter Robinson's claim that the East Village is "the only hope for progressive art and for the future in the world today," based on its economic, civic, and geographical significance. And what about the art? Michael Kohn flips traditional art values in his essay so that the work's "mannerist" tendencies turn out to be a positive thing. "The connection between sixteenth-century Italian and contemporary East Village art lies in the argument that we are now experiencing yet another Mannerist phase."

According to some dealers, artists will approach them by saying, "Whatever kind of art you're looking for--I'll do it." Some artists are certainly style bunnies, reproducing their "look" endlessly. Cranking out pure product. Meanwhile, good artists and dealers have had all they can do to avoid getting lost in the ongoing sociology lesson.

The scene's critic-promoters--notably Robinson and McCormick--have been as important as any artist or dealer in legitimizing it. They explain, for example, why work that seems shallow isn't. ("...the East Village is a reaction against intellectualization. The superficiality which is often found in much of its art is an attempt at something deeper; what is trite is a step towards avoiding the set path of artistic development," says McCormick in the catalogue called the EAST VILLAGE SCENE.) Relentless promotion only neutralizes the good artists--like Sue Coe, John Fekner, Kathleen Thomas--by never distinguishing them from the crowd. McCormick discusses over 20 artists in his essay in the EAST VILLAGE SCENE, over 60 in his supplement, a booklet stuck into the center of NEO YORK--and he's kind to them all. That may be the nature of catalogue writing, but the East Village would be better served by separating the press releases from the reviews.

EASTVILLAGE 85 has the look of a Chamber of Commerce promotional booklet. It lists galleries, their "stables," and pictures some of the work. Preceding that are dozens of tiny head shots of neighborhood artists. But anything that labels itself a "guide" and "documentary" and then doesn't include such respected galleries as Nature Morte and Pat Hearn seems suspect. As it turns out, gallery owners report, they had to pay to be included. This is the East Village at its worst: a high school yearbook with pictures of the cool kids. And a cover image of money and a painting changing hands as drawn by the scene's most cynical artist, Mark Kostabi.

The cynicism at the heart of this preoccupation with the marketplace is the East Village's most troubling feature, one it will have to transcend if it's to last. Or to go out in the blaze of glory with which it came in. Isms become wasms but a few values remain constant. As Charles Newman says of postmodernism's demise: "...the mysterious force of all serious art is the extent to which it always exceeds the requirements of the market."

Back to Index of ABC No Rio History

about | events | facilities | arts ed & training | calendar | online galleries | affiliated projects | make contact | support

ABC No Rio: The Culture of Opposition Since 1980