In 1985, I moved into a roach-infested East Village sublet on 3rd Street between Avenues B and C. Squatters and crackheads had taken over some of the abandoned, graffiti-covered buildings on the block, and heroin dealers, drug addicts, and prostitutes crowded my entryway. But, at $360 a month, I thought it was a steal.
Fortunately, the landlord gave me some advice: "Never go east when you leave the building," he said, "and always act crazy. The former tenant flapped his arms and clucked like a chicken between his front door and Avenue A, and the dealers and whores loved him. They called him 'Chicken Man.' All you need to do is come up with something similar and you'll be fine."
Walking through the sprawling show "East Village USA," which just opened on two floors at the New Museum's temporary location in Chelsea, I could not help but be reminded of "Chicken Man" and of my landlord's advice to "act crazy." The show's subject is East Village art made between 1981 and 1987, when there was an everything-is-encouraged, anything goes attitude (the crazier, the better) behind most of the art exhibited.
"Appropriation" was the buzzword of the decade, and nothing was off-limits. Graffiti leapt from the walls of burned-out buildings and subway cars to the walls of East Village galleries (nearly a hundred of which sprouted and died within the decade). The club scene and the art scene became inseparable. Every day, it seemed, artists were reinventing themselves and redefining what could and would be exhibited in galleries.
This exhibition, which contains nearly 200 works by over 75 artists, highlights some of the Dadaist antics, performances, and Neo-Expressionist, Neo-Conceptualist, Neo-Geo, feminist, political, and graffiti art of the period. If you feel nostalgic for the pre-Gap, pre-Starbucks, pre-KMart Alphabet City, or you were too young to experience it the first time around, "East Village USA" may spark your interest.
But be aware: Even though the show's paintings, sculptures, photography, video, film, music, and performance art present a fairly accurate feel for the period, it gives us some of the worst art ever exhibited in New York City - art that does not necessarily get any better the second time around.
Many of the "East Village" artists have become very influential art world stars. Basquiat, Sue Coe, Karen Finley, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Tom Otterness, Richard Prince, Kenny Scharf, Kiki Smith, and Philip Taaffe have all moved on to be represented by upscale SoHo, Uptown, or Chelsea galleries - the very type against which their original East Village galleries rebelled.
But most of the work in "East Village" is simply bad: bad sculpture, bad painting, bad ideas. New York's short-lived graffiti art movement, represented by paintings and photographs of works by Crash, Daze, Dondi, Lee Quinones, Futura 2000, Kenny Scharf, Lady Pink, and Jenny Holzer, reminds us that the sale of spray paint should be prohibited to artists and minors.
The best works in the exhibition are the photographs of art-world celebrities and the documentaries of performances which, no matter how annoying or dated the works, show the styles and flavors of the period. I was particularly interested in "Death Valley 69" (1986) by Richard Kern, Judith Barry, and Sonic Youth. The grainy music video - hard-hitting, violent, and raw - conveys the downtown energy of the 1980s' CBGB.
In the basement space, visible from the gallery above, are performance videos by artists such as Karen Finley's "I Am an Ass Man" (1985); John Kelly's "Diary of a Somnambulist" (1985); and Frank Moore and Jim Self's "Beehive" (1985). They are among the dozen or more performances projected on screens that crowd, compete, and clash with one another like separate telecasts of tennis, hockey, Nascar, and figure skating at a sports bar.
The second floor of the show is filled with period photographs and memorabilia. Wraparound collages of exhibition announcements, posters, and playbills cover some of the walls. There is also a "readers' table," collaged with ephemera and articles by such critics as Roberta Smith, Kim Levin, and Peter Nagy. Portraits of art world critics, artists, and dealers by David Robbins, Tom Warren, Patrick McMullan, and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders transform the space into an art-world rogues' gallery, circa 1985.
After seeing artifacts such as Keith Haring's "Untitled" (1982), a large, do-nothing, day-glow painting; Rodney Alan Greenblat's mildly interesting "Ark of Triumph" (1984-5), a huge, carnivalesque, mixed-media altar; Sue Coe's dark and banal mixed media "New York 1985 - Car Hookers Age 13" (1985); and Jeff Koons's bronze "Lifeboat" (1985), it becomes pretty clear which artists had talent.
Three small works by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) are on view: "Untitled" (1980), "Famous Negro Athletes #4" (1981), and "untitled" (1981-82).They are not the best representations of the artist's work (the Brooklyn Museum's upcoming retrospective should provide a better opportunity to assess the artist), but they show a genuine voice. Basquiat was concerned not with style or appropriation but with developing a natural hand and getting at a personal vision.
Unfortunately, Basquiat, a child who was championed by Warhol and who died of a drug overdose, was consumed by the very culture that created him. It takes a village, after all.
At the Chelsea Art Museum until March 19, 2005 (556 W. 22nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-219-1222).