Volume 75, Number 39 | February 15 -21 2006

Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi

Left to right, top to bottom: Katy K., Keith Haring, Carmel Johnson, John Sex, Bruno Schmidt, Samatha McEwen, Juan Dubose, Dan Friedman, Kenny Scharf, Tereza Goncalves, Min Thomez and Tseng Kwong Chi in a photograph taken at a ball at the Puck Building in 1983, now on view at Grey Art Gallery.

Searching for the heart of Downtown

By Nicole Davis

“Life before cell phones, answering machines, iPods, or DVDs. No video rentals or Walkmans. No MTV. In other words, less interference.” So begins multi-talent Ann Magnuson’s essay in “The Downtown Book,” the literary companion to the current “Downtown Show” at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery that chronicles downtown New York’s booming art scene between 1974 and 1984. At the opening last month, there was no question those static-free times were long gone when a baseball-capped kid walked through the packed gallery, scanning the art on the walls and talking into his BlackBerry phone simultaneously.

“It’s a zoo and it’s dumb,” he reported back to some anonymous caller. For someone who probably wasn’t alive during the decade the exhibit covers, the art must have seemed outdated. Along with photos, paintings, videos, and remnants of that era, like Basquiat’s jacket, the show also features ephemera like ID cards for the now-defunct Mudd Club and handmade flyers – evidence of a period defined not so much by what could be sold in galleries, but rather what could happen when you put a few hundred people in 20 by 20 block radius of one another like some fantastic Petri dish experiment in creativity. The book is almost better representative of the period, if only because the artists who were a part of it had space to explain what it was like then.

“It was the beginning of post-modernism,” says Martha Wilson, who started the bookstore and performance space Franklin Furnace out of her Tribeca loft in 1976. “Except we didn’t have the term for it then. [It was more like] ‘Why does high art and low art have to be separate? Why can’t we play together?”

Clearly, the legacy of those Downtown artists was to make sure, as Wilson says, “that anything goes,” blurring the boundaries between mediums, even creating mediums, like performance art, that hadn’t existed before. But what has changed about the Downtown art scene since that period—if can you even locate it Downtown, when so many artists have moved to the outer boroughs, or even outside of New York?

“Downtown isn’t so much connected with a specific location anymore,” says Dean Daderko, a thirtysomething independent curator who is part of a panel called “No Alternative” scheduled to talk about the impact of the Downtown art scene at the Grey Gallery March 2. “Downtown now includes everywhere from Williamsburg to the Bronx; there’s not one epicenter.” At least not any more. One thing the “Downtown Book” points out is that between 1974 and 1984, there were more art school graduates in the country than any other period in American history. New York was still the heart of the art world, and Downtown was still dirt cheap: a 2,000 square foot loft in Soho cost $200 a month in 1974. The low rent attracted artists to the still-industrial section of the city like settlers to the Wild West. In a place with few resources they created their own, like a pay-what-you-wish restaurant called Food founded by Gordon Matta-Clark and Tina Girouard and other artists, or a bar called Magoo’s that allowed you to pay for food and drinks with art.

“It was abandoned, it was empty, there was nothing going on,” says Wilson, who now operates Franklin Furnace from downtown Brooklyn as an online archive and broker, pairing artists with money and venues. “There wasn’t even a place to do laundry; I would have to take it on the subway to West 4th Street.

“There were [also] fewer places to gather, so you pretty much saw everyone you knew at Franklin Furnace, or the Mudd Club or the Clocktower” — alternative spaces and watering holes that demarcated this physically smaller universe, and cultivated an instant audience for every impromptu performance and event. “The same 300 people were all looking at each other’s work and reacting to it and playing off of it.”

That tiny community, which sprang up in Soho in the 70s and spread to the East Village in the 80s, ultimately dispersed as the AIDS crisis hit, art became more commercialized, and rents reached staggering heights.

“What’s different between then and now? The rent for sure. It’s like a purging of creativity,” says Clayton Patterson, who has run a storefront gallery on Essex Street since 1985. “To come here and pay $3000 a month in rent means you’re running around, working 60 hours a week just to pay the bills.

“And because it’s so expensive, what you get is the grind” — and not just in the working life. Even the nightlife has changed.

“If you go to Mo’s to see a show, you might go from 9:30 to 10:45 [before another act comes on]. In the past at a club, you used to be able to hang out all night.”

The significance of all that hanging out, he says, was the bonds it developed. “A scene gets created.  A scene makes a movement, and thus something happens.”

“Lifestyle was as much a creative practice [then] as putting time in the studio,” says pop culture critic and curator Carlo McCormick, the guest curator of the Downtown Show. Opening a café, playing in a band, scouring dumpsters for a flamboyant outfit to wear at Danceteria, all these creative acts weren’t “tangibly fine art practices, but they could bring together in one room a bunch of cool, creative people, and a certain amount of hybridity would come of that.” So writers hanging out with musicians started bands, or artists starred in movies or did performance art. “Now, when you go to see performance art, it’s sort of ghettoized again,” says McCormick, which could be a function of time as much as economics. With such low rent, people simply didn’t have to work as long or as hard to maintain their lifestyle, leaving them an open schedule to experiment.

The low rent = more creativity equation seems to work when you apply it to cheap places to live right now like Portland, Oregon, where it’s possible to support yourself on a few bartending shifts a week. “We have a really good life—there’s no way I could pull it off anywhere else,” says Tamar Monhait, a printmaker, photographer and musician who lives in a 2,000-square-foot loft she rents with her boyfriend for $850 a month. “A lot of people I know have left and moved to places like New York, but they come back because of the affordability and because they have the time and space to do what they want.” The trade off is that there’s less diversity, say Monhait. “I also don’t feel like there’s a cohesive scene,” she says.

That desire for a physical community a la 70s and 80s Downtown New York could just be symptomatic of the rampant globalization and virtual connectivity that define the 21st century. “There’s a huge difference in technology,” says Alanna Heiss, founder and director of PS1 Contemporary Art Center. “We now have the ability to produce using digital technology. In the 1970s, artists would meet at a bar to discuss ideas and then go to a print shop to create the work. Now you can just sit at your desk and send a message out to thousands of people. The physical socialized structure is not as evident today,” she says.

Art fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach and biennials elsewhere have also made the art community more global in nature. Unlike the 70s and early 80s, when “you had to be in New York to have a career during that period, it’s no longer necessary to live here,” says Suzanne Anker, chair of the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the School of Visual Arts. “It’s not uncommon now to see a group show with names from all over the world.”

Or even from all over New York. In fact, if there’s any barometer for how spread out the New York art world has become, it’s PS1’s “Greater New York Show,” which culls emerging artists from all five boroughs and even towns in (gasp) New Jersey. But can too much diffusion be a bad thing?

“I think the art and music scene in New York at this time is struggling primarily because it seems spread extremely thin between many different subcultures and miniature communities,” says JD Samson, a visual artist, choreographer, and member of the punk band Le Tigre who will also be part of the Grey Gallery panel in March.

New York artists today also contend with a highly competitive, commercial art scene. “The scene here is so market driven,” says Daderko, who explains that New York’s myriad galleries haven’t so much fostered a community as stunted it. “You walk in, look at the art, and walk out. It’s not so much a social scene, even though what is going on is very social,” he says. “New York sadly lacks a dialogue about work [right now]”— which is party why Daderko goes out of his way to create one. For five years, he ran a gallery in the living room of his loft in Williamsburg, a space that actually encouraged conversation about the work on view — until the rent increased and he had to move out. Still, he finds ways to curate shows that fall outside of gallery walls, like a series of free performances that ran last fall at the Chelsea Hotel, or the Talent Show he recently put together at the Tribeca bar M1-5 with friend K8 [Kate] Hardy. “We basically put out a flyer”—a crappily made flyer, he points out — “with these provocations, like, will ‘Hanna Liden come as JT Leroy?’” (Liden, a Swedish-born photographer, did.) In all, about 300 people turned out for the inaugural, monthly event Daderko says he created because there hadn’t been a performance party in New York for some time. “A good dance party with performance art — it’s been a while since the city’s done something like that.”

It’s events like these — non-commercial, ephemeral, “hybrid”inal — that suggest that artists coming of age today aren’t so concerned with making art just so they can sell it in a gallery. As Jen DeNike, a video artist featured in PS1’s Greater New York 2005 puts it, “A lot of people are more interested in creating a dialogue amongst ourselves in our art practice that involves more than just engaging in the gallery system, through curating events, programs, and collaborating on projects where we often find or create our own venues.” The types of time-based, collaborative projects she describes—creating a Mandala out of breakfast cereal, taking over a hotel where artists show work in the rooms they’re staying in—are reminiscent of the art represented in the Downtown Show in that they sometimes take place in alternative spaces and aren’t necessarily about commerce. But the glaring difference today is that a number of these artist-curated events occur thousand of miles from Downtown Manhattan, from Art Basel Miami Beach to Slow Burn, a group show in Geneva.

“It is almost as though...the art has prevailed rather than the specific bar or club or art space,” says Samson of the nomadic art scene today. “We move together, and we will go anywhere. And that is what is so incredible about now.” 

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