Why isn’t “East Village USA,” now at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Chelsea, called “Art in the East Village, 1981–1987”? Perhaps because this show finally seems less about art than about a state of mind. Much of the work on view has not worn particularly well, but, as a collection of cultural artifacts, the array of pieces by 75 artists evokes a flamboyant microculture—that scroungy, street-loving, fame-worshipping, everyone’s-an-artist, clubby, queer, cocaine-and-cockroaches scene that was the East Village of the eighties. I found myself, during this cacophonous exhibition, becoming more interested in mapping a mood than in rating the art.
Traditionally a haven for people living on the margins of American society—among them artists, writers, and actors—the East Village became the home of dozens of storefront galleries in the eighties. They served the growing number of young artists coming to New York who either could not find a gallery in Soho, then the center of the contemporary art world, or who wanted to rebel against the older, sometimes more puritanical minimal and conceptual artists of the time. They created a Dionysian youth culture that differed from its sixties precursor. The East Village sensibility wasn’t mellow or idealistic. It was jangled nerves, presented with a flourish. It hoped to violate the last boundaries of taste. It was, as people said, coke, not acid: jittery, narcissistic, self-conscious.
Not surprisingly, the heart of the East Village scene was performance art. The curator of the exhibit, Dan Cameron, rightly emphasizes that genre by giving several performance videos a prominent position in the show, creating an art babble that, while distracting, conveys the chaotic energy of the milieu. (Earphones and other technical razzamatazz also enable viewers to pay attention to individual works.) He gives the largest screens to Ethyl Eichelberger’s Leer and Frank Moore and Jim Self’s Beehive. In Leer, Eichelberger, dressed as a baggy old Mark Twain, rants and raves upon an East Village heath. The pun off Shakespeare’s Lear is typical of the period’s interest in “appropriation.” Beehive is a delightful piece of absurdist nonsense, a sitcom in a honeycomb, designed to offend highbrow admirers of minimalist dance. Moore described it as a “Honeymooners for Bees.”
Beneath the big screens are other filmed performances, mostly in the grainy, coarse video that now looks as old-fashioned as a nineteenth-century salt print. Karen Finley’s I’m an Ass Man is there. Famous for poking herself with yams and smearing food on her exposed body, Finley became the Queen of Id, the artist who would reveal anything. She wasn’t alone: That was part of the East Village shtick. Rock bands also tried to perform beyond the pale. In Death Valley 69, Richard Kern, Judith Barry, and Sonic Youth blasted together music and scenes of violence—including a woman playing with a giant switchblade—as if to bring the viewer to some sharp, cataclysmic edge. Artists routinely crisscrossed the sexes. (There seemed to be at least twenty genders in the East Village.) The disheveled urban street was a theater in which to make your mark, and the graffiti-charged subways were widely admired. In the end, the graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat became the most celebrated East Village artist.
Even the roughest East Village artists were not that rough, however, often displaying a Warholian eye for celebrity and the main chance: On the margin, many were perfecting their moves. The photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders staged a number of amusing riffs on an old iconic Life magazine photograph of the Abstract Expressionists, substituting ambitious East Villagers for Pollock and the other early stars. The East Village sometimes seemed like an extended tribal family in which everyone carried around a camera, taking snaps. Nan Goldin became the preeminent family photographer, but there were also many others who documented the goings-on. Striking a pose for the camera was almost instinctive, like a child’s saying “cheese.”
Many people have their own idiosyncratic take on the East Village, and so Cameron’s show is certain to be controversial. He does not strongly emphasize the best or best-known artists of the scene, with the result that the survey appears to be loose, a collection of this and that, rather than an effort to isolate value. But that strange moment does come to life. The East Village did not last long as an art outpost. Its most important impact upon American culture was not to provide an ism or style—even though many were swirling around at the time—but to create an attitude of absolute permission. An anything-goes perspective that, while it led to a lot of mediocre art, also created a youthful sense of boundless possibility. In retrospect, the East Village has a poignant, before-the-fall innocence: aids was just emerging.