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One Brief, Scuzzy Moment

But much of the new East Village “movement” amounted to “Self-Expressionism” of the kind that now flowers on television as 24/7 terminal self-revelation. Its crudity effectively captured nothing salient about the movement of history—except, perhaps, as an unconscious reflection of Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy and the cultural glorification of greed. These new venues were filled with adolescent energy, prankishness, and their own brand of undifferentiated anger about everything wrong with the world. Unfortunately, few 20-year-olds even know what world they’re living in, much less what’s actually wrong with it.

Some who did know, and made very intriguing work from their perception, were Richard Hambleton, a creepy person whose shadow figures painted on all kinds of outdoor surfaces really were disturbing and effective (even more so, strange to say, in broad daylight than at night); Kenny Scharf, who was far more personally engaging than his paintings were for a time, but eventually brought his work up to the same level as his personality; Kiki Smith, a born artist in every sense; and Marilyn Minter, whose paintings of movie-star faces and people wearing excessive makeup hold up much better today than many of the other “Neo-Ex” artists who have been chosen for “East Village USA.”

I can easily understand why Rodney Alan Greenblat’s playpen defacements of innocent blank canvas would have to be included in a truly comprehensive survey of the period. At the time, he was considered the cynical nadir of Neo-Ex, and a hilarious example of what arriviste orthodontists and jumped-up ambulance chasers in the legal profession were willing to waste money on as “art collectors” before the stock-market crash of 1987. I’m told that one collector couple known then as the “personal hygiene” practitioner and his wife are currently buying a porn channel in Florida. And they were among the better ones.

But I’m repulsed by this show’s inclusion of Tom Otterness, a sculptor of limitless nonentity despite his demonstrated skill at conning public-art commissions and taste-impaired collectors into making him rich. Mr. Otterness, once upon a time, adopted a dog and then shot it to death for the fun of recording his infantile, sadistic depravity on film. I’d like the New Museum’s visitors to keep that in mind while looking at this creep’s work. Mr. Otterness isn’t one of those special exceptions deserving the adage “Lousy person, terrific artist.” Lousy both.

“I don’t think it’s the worst” piece, said art dealer Gracie Mansion. “You should see who I’m showing next.”

Many artists made no tangible objects but did things that really were art at the time, like Johnny Dynell and Chi Chi Valenti, who kept dull people out of the Mudd Club. (Ann Magnuson and a cohort of appealing freaks turned Club 57 into a breezy retort to the Mudd Club’s manic-depressive door policy.) Those of us who always got in considered them the ne plus ultra of discerning crowd control and infallible fashion sense—Chi Chi’s S.S. uniform made a statement so convolutedly funny and menacing it should’ve been bought by the Met years ago. Keith Haring used to have shows at the Mudd Club, before Tony Shafrazi gave him his first Soho exhibit. My memories of the place are mostly before midnight (if you can remember what happened at the Mudd Club after two in the morning, you were never there), but Johnny and Chi Chi are still making waves in the better precincts of nightland.

While much neo–east village art was tepid, a fair amount of the earlier East Village’s more risk-taking chutzpa had started losing steam circa 1982. We should never forget that vast numbers of New York’s best people—Peter Hujar, Flaming Creatures director Jack Smith, Cookie Mueller, Robert Mapplethorpe, painter Nicolas Moufarrege—died fast in the aids epidemic or a few years into it.

Another factor that took the neighborhood’s flavor away: Too many esteemed local talents had acquired an insulating crust of uncritical coterie worship. The banal efforts of once-exciting artists received rote adulation from claques less concerned about quality than about sparing a friend’s feelings. They no longer cared if what they presented in public sucked, as long as they presented something. You could blame the timidity of artists terrified of wider cultural arenas and their risks, or the small rewards of masochistic, self-induced failure. And, cruel as it sounds, you can also blame living in New York while cowering for decades in the same mousy sliver of it, as if you inhabited an unusually zany alpine village.

There was something necessary and painfully liberating about flushing away preciosity and giving nostalgia a kick in the ass. Even if the flush mechanism itself belonged in a toilet.

All the same, avatars of the pre-Reagan-era East Village scene who didn’t pale or die or lose their aesthetic savvy were rarely respected or even noticed by the people who took over. Nor are they in the show. It’s unsurprising, but really sick, that Jeff Weiss, one of a handful of certifiable living legends who performed all through the eighties in a 10th Street basement apartment, didn’t even register on the New Museum’s C-list.

David Wojnarowicz, who’d lived in New York forever and had been a teenage hustler in Times Square, straddled the old and new scenes. He and I had a complicated relationship, and I’d like to settle some hash propagated by an art critic named Lucy Lippard in an Aperture publication devoted to David, in which she implied that I’d stalked him.