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One Brief, Scuzzy Moment

The East Village art scene—that heady mid-eighties era when uptown collectors elbowed out Avenue B junkies—is about to be memorialized by a New Museum show. Not so fast. One of the more pointed critics of the time recalls the worst excesses of that art movement—and the (infinitely cooler) neighborhood that it eclipsed.

I lived in the East Village when it still had the narcoleptic desuetude of downtown Detroit, and was usually included with today’s Loisaida under the less cozy moniker “the Lower East Side.” (It had, of course, been called the East Village in the more interesting part of the sixties, but went back to LES in the grim seventies.) So, it’s a little thorny for me to flip back a quarter-century to the three years I spent as an art critic at the Village Voice in the mid-eighties, or revisit the “East Village Art Scene” they loosely coincided with—a scene that, for one, brief, improbable moment, made the neighborhood the West Chelsea of its day, and forever banished the area’s better Detroit-like qualities.

The neighborhood has a jarringly different history for me from the one the New Museum of Contemporary Art chronicles in its new show “East Village USA.” I haven’t seen it yet (it opens December 9), but judging from a checklist of works and curator Dan Cameron’s catalogue essay, the show will survey a somewhat parochially defined East Village art world, chronologically speaking. Its true measure of an artist’s importance, with a few exceptions, seems to be the amount of publicity he or she got in 1983.

Not that such an approach is historically inaccurate. The Reagan-era scene itself ignored much of the far more interesting East Village art world that had come before it. Until hordes of trust-fund bohemians and storefront art salesmen invaded to give the nabe an entrepreneurial makeover—and lay the groundwork for an explosion in real-estate values that eventually wrecked its wealth of rent-stabilized apartments—the East Village was an ideal refuge for any artist born without a silver spoon. Contrary to its wild and crazy latecomers, they didn’t make a rose garden from the Atacama Desert. There was plenty of life in the place before anyone thought to squeeze cash from it.

I was a bit anterior to the Wall-Hanging Art Boom spawned by Morning in America, though I found myself in the whirling center of it before it lapsed into remission. Since 1978, I had been a playwright and stage director who wrote little essays on film and other subjects, and published an occasional bad poem. I never much cared if I had any money. I lived so reclusively that I passed for deceased much of any given year. I was pathologically shy, but I forced myself to become a dervish of sociability whenever I embarked on another play. I believed that actors, like Germans of the thirties, were basically clueless children yearning for a headstrong, visionary father figure, even if he happened to be insufferably overbearing, zonked on speed half the time, and possibly insane.

Many artists made no objects but did things that were art, like keeping dull people out of the Mudd Club.

When I moved into the neighborhood in the late seventies, I immediately assembled a theater troupe with the actor and painter Bill Rice, a slyboots sage revered in the authentic New York bohemia since Harry Truman. Our theater was a backyard garden—a jumble of bricks, concrete, and cinder blocks with little sprouts of vegetation here and there—behind Bill’s floor-through studio at 13 East 3rd. Our company included inspired madcaps like Tina L’Hotsky, Queen of the Mudd Club. And Evan Lurie of the Lounge Lizards (formerly the Eels) composed all the music for our shows. He also appeared in our play Curse of the Dog People, as Fludd, an estate archivist hired by a family of werewolves.

We never agreed on a name for our company. I favored “Theater of the Obvious,” but Bill preferred “Garbage After Dinner.” His place was what used to be called “a beautiful mess.” Large objects were constantly sliding from shelves. One storm-tossed night when our bal musette had moved indoors, René Ricard recited his electrifyingly caustic poetry from the garden doorway, his back to the audience, while he pissed a full bladder into the pitch-black downpour.

Bill Rice also hosted art shows, where I first saw Barbara Ess’s pinhole-camera photos, Richard Morrison’s haunting (and still uncelebrated) photographs, and a riveting, Brice Marden–ish monochrome painting that had taken months to execute, as its sole medium was the artist’s semen. Other artists whose work appeared in Bill’s studio—and who still exhibit at an East Village institution, La Galleria on 1st Street—include Mark Tambella, Francie Lyshak, and Rice himself. Tambella paints superlatively realist scenes of people working, talking, having sex, running. Lyshak makes figurative work of real uniqueness—fragments of landscapes hyperenlarged. Rice paints pictures of the guys from the men’s shelter on 3rd Street; figures revealed by streetlight seeping through venetian blinds; traffic; everything you see and do in the dark. His work captures parts of the neighborhood that still haven’t entirely gone away.

It seems impossible now, but at one time, circa 1979, everyone I saw on Second Avenue, day or night, was either someone I knew or someone I recognized: the vertiginously tall, incomparably fearless photographer Peter Hujar; the sublimely nose-thumbing sculptor Paul Thek; Nico (as in Velvet Underground Nico); Penny Arcade, wacko genius of one-woman stage anarchy; Herbert Huncke, the indomitable drug pusher who inspired much of William Burroughs’s Junky; Larry Rivers; punk avatars Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine; filmmaker Nick Zedd; actress Black-Eyed Susan; Jean-Michel Basquiat (who went by his graffiti tag SAMO, then); filmmaker Amos Poe; Terri Toye (the most beautiful boy who ever became a girl); and sometimes Debbie Harry. Understand, these familiars didn’t graze in packs—there were seldom more than twenty ambulatory individuals scattered between 14th Street and Houston at the same hour.

Before the galleries arrived in the mid-eighties and Avenue A became a beckoning, piquantly semi-dangerous place for kids from Dalton to ferret out a nickel bag of Mary Jane, the “old” East Village already had a full dance card of subterranean amusements. The Bar at Second Avenue and 4th doubled as a pickup joint and giddy living room/salon for a whole community of musicians, writers, actors, and painters, some already famous, like Robert Mapplethorpe and Edward Albee, many others famous later on. John Lurie played pool there in the afternoon. One standout memory is a night when the legendary J. J. Mitchell, Frank O’Hara’s lover years before, spilled an entire bottle of poppers up my nose.

A differently eclectic crowd of theater people converged most nights on Phebe’s at Bowery and 4th, wired from performing at La MaMa or Theater for the New City. I met Cookie Mueller in Phebe’s, and fell in love with her on the spot. Cookie had featured in John Waters’s early films. She acted, designed clothes, and also wrote stories and a medical-advice column, “Ask Dr. Mueller.”