One Brief, Scuzzy Moment

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 wereart, 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.”

In a strictly hedonistic way, Eileen’s Reno Bar was integral to the East Village community. A narrow pocket of surrealism on Second Avenue between 11th and 12th, its ceiling surfaced in plastic jade plant—brown plastic jade plant—Eileen’s had its flaccid nights of dead-room tone. But most evenings brought a steady influx of pre-op transsexuals, clueless walk-ins, bisexual drug dealers, garrulous drunks with a schizophrenic flair, Ricardo Montalban types from Europe lusting after chicks with dicks, and a few black-humored fags like myself, who much preferred the Reno Bar’s nightly Halloween party to clocking the aging process in some drippy gay bar. Eileen’s had the carnal whoop-de-do of a fetish convention. It was also full of crack whores working the track on 11th Street.

I once took a bar stool beside an enormous black woman I mistook for a drugstore cashier who’d rung up my toothpaste purchase that afternoon, which led to a dyslexic exchange of misunderstandings; I realized my mistake when she leaned close and declared in a tragic whisper: “You know something? My clitoris is as big as a penis. You know what I’m saying? My clitoris is the same size as a penis. I’m talking about a big penis. Can you understand what that makes me feel like?”

One Eileen’s habitué named Joel wore a walrusy mustache and the woebegone, sagging face of the chronically defeated. His spot was the last bar stool in back, where a hideous painting, widely assumed to portray the Reno Bar’s ancient founder, hovered behind Joel’s thinning hair. (There was, and still is, an actual Eileen: I saw her a few weeks ago on the Third Avenue uptown bus. Older, but ever a star.)

My friend Louie Laurita and I felt sad for Joel. Laconic and melancholy as he bolted down five or six G&Ts, Joel would haul himself out to his pickup truck and we’d see it hopelessly circling around at five miles an hour, until Joel returned, slumped and abashed-looking, to drown his abjection in more gin. “Poor Joel,” Louie habitually said. “Can’t even get laid by a whore.”

Around the time when the Barnes & Noble megastore opened on Astor Place, we learned Joel’s last name was Rifkin. Over the years, he had strangled seventeen prostitutes in that truck. Here we’d been trying to cheer the guy up, and he’d actually been having the time of his life.

It may sound a stretch, but I date the transformation of the East Village from when Jack Henry Abbott, a murderer who’d just been paroled thanks to Norman Mailer’s proclaiming him a literary genius, fatally stabbed Richard Adan, a waiter I knew who worked at the Binibon restaurant on Second Avenue, in 1981. It was the beginning of the end for that restaurant.

An obnoxiously trendy, moderately upscale restaurant named 103 opened near the vanished Binibon. It had stupidly angular tables and a snippy, impatient staff. It planted a proprietary yuppie flag in a low-income backwater where eccentricity was normal and having six bucks for a hamburger wasn’t. It was only a restaurant, the food was okay. It wasn’t Kmart. (We were spared that for another fifteen years.) But more upscale restaurants would soon sprout as the Art Mecca spread its vulpine wings. And already, with 103’s arrival, longtime residents understood that one day, gentrification would shove them out of their rent-secure tenements into Hoboken isolation, or possibly a refrigerator crate on the Bowery.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The globally hyped, short-lived phenomenon known as the East Village Art Scene originated in the basement of the building I live in. One day in 1981, through a doorway under the stoop, I noticed Patti Astor rolling paint over dingy walls, in a space I had long imagined the lair of elderly former concentration-camp guards—the only conceivable background of my landlord’s maintenance hires.

Patti was opening a gallery. In Charlie Ahearn’s movie Wild Style, she played a reporter whose car breaks down in the Bronx, where she befriends a charismatic group of graffiti artists. Patti’s character inserts these artists into the downtown art world.

In my experience, life seldom imitates art and certainly never improves on it, but Patti and her partner, Bill Stelling, did smuggle Harlem and the South Bronx into a veritably albino art scene. The Fun Gallery, which later moved farther east, really was fun. Patti served Lava Lamp–colored cocktails. The openings carried the sexy charge of surplus beauty in the room. The place was totally free of pretension. And there were actual black people there. (The endemic racism of the art world speaks volumes about the people who run it.) Patti simply didn’t care if she made any money: The point was to zap a little soul into the prevailing rigor mortis. Lady Pink, Futura 2000, Daze, and Lee Quinones, among other graffiti artists, as well as Renaissance goofball-wit Arch Connelly, appear, happy to say, in “East Village USA” and were all part of the Fun Gallery—long before the not-so-fun stuff happened.

That was, as the song goes, the start of something big. And the end of something small. Next, monkey see monkey do, more storefront art shops opened, a lot in 1982, and a full invasion by 1985. More, it quickly appeared, than enough worthwhile artists to fill them. I lack the memory cells to proper-name all the galleries whose press releases enhanced the horror of opening my mailbox. But I can recall what distinguishes a period of artistic excellence from a gas leak of mindlessly avid publicity. Consider what the otherwise sensible Dutch laid out for a tulip bulb a few hundred years ago.

The Fun Gallery spawned an embarrassment of epigones, mostly devoted to “Neo-Expressionism.” The original Expressionism, of course, had been an effulgence of audaciously painted imagery, aggressively wrought in thick impasto, reflecting the harsh historical upheavals of its time. It dispensed with the delicacies and preciosities of Impressionism in the same way that Dostoyevsky dispensed with the sentimentalized aspects of Turgenev. In these instances, innovation wasn’t primarily intended to negate the value of what preceded it, but to keep the recording of consciousness up to date.

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 dealerGracie Mansion. “You should see whoI’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.

From top: Art dealer Gracie Mansion, 1985; graffiti artist Lady Pink; a Stephen Lack show at Gracie Mansion's first gallery, which occupied her apartment bathroom.Photo: From top: Mark Stern; Martha Cooper; Courtesy of Gracie Mansion Fine Art

It happens that for about three months, David and I insistently sought each other’s constant company, for differently confused reasons, and mostly in Paris. We said rotten things about each other in public, and in the course of our folie à deux, David wrote many deranged letters to me, and I to him. I disposed of his a year later. He, ever the pack rat, hung on to mine while assuring me he’d burned them. We later made up, but the crux of David’s resentment is that I never valued his paintings as highly as his writing. We had basic disagreements about art. David believed that children are natural artists and their spontaneous expression is what an adult artist should approximate as closely as possible. I like children just fine, but that’s horseshit. As David was probably the pick of the litter as far as Neo-Ex-slash-graffiti-art went, he also exemplified—not always in his work, but in his attitude—what I found lazy and self-absorbed about most of the artwork produced by the “movement.”

After David’s death from aids in 1992, a curator at the Grey Art Gallery asked my permission to display my deranged letters to David in a vitrine. I refused. I pointed out that I myself wasn’t dead yet. I had a great fondness for David. I won’t claim that I miss him the way I miss Cookie or my best, best friend, Dieter Schidor, Fassbinder’s last producer, who suicided shortly after his HIV diagnosis. Among the dead, we all have our empathetic priorities. I am sorry David’s gone.

Some of the gallerists in the new scene were arguably more interesting than the painters. Amid the places where Neo-Expressionism defined the style, Gracie Mansion and her partner, Sur Rodney Sur, stood out. Gracie’s instincts and shrewd taste (Peter Hujar, Marilyn Minter, Stephen Lack) deserved, and got, her a lasting career in the biz. I’ve always respected her as a pioneer, ever since she launched her first “gallery” in her apartment bathroom. I wasn’t always crazy about her early choices. At one of her shows, Gracie greeted me as I looked at something very disagreeable on the wall. “What do you think?” she brightly asked. “Oh, Gracie, I can’t help it, I think it’s a piece of shit.” She whooped. “I don’t think it’s the worst piece of shit,” she said. “You should see who I’m showing next, you wanna see shit. The pictures will get better, I hope, or they’ll get really bad and he can make a fortune and blow it on heroin.”

Pat Hearn also occupied a higher class of startup art dealers. She had panache and daring, beauty and good breeding, but the rarest thing Pat had, in preternatural abundance, was grace. I adored her. I don’t think Pat would mind my revealing that our cordial acquaintance ripened into friendship by accident, when we showed up at the same Debtors Anonymous meeting.

Colin de Land, who opened American Fine Arts, was the only matchingly brilliant figure Pat should have married, and she did, and now they’re both dead, first her, then him, and nobody who knew them has ever gotten over it. Colin looked like an especially jaded, paling gigolo and card sharp. I’m hardly the only person who ever offered him a blow job in his place of business. I may be the only person who never gave him one at one time or another, though once he married Pat, that was that.

Colin and Richard Prince invented an artist named John Dogg, and put up a well-received show of his work at Lisa Spellman’s 303 Gallery. (A lot of people still believe that I was John Dogg. I wasn’t. Colin and Richard came up with the ideas, and one or the other “made” the work—Goodyear tires and other store-bought objects. That was one show where presentation was, literally, everything.)

In 1985, the Village Voice offered me a job as senior art critic. This made my life easier and lousy at the same time. I now had to actually enter all those galleries instead of peeking in the windows. At times, the only tangible perk was having the chump for a fifth of vodka whenever twenty more phonies had flattered my ass off in the course of a working week.

The East Village was a small quadrant of what I had to “cover,” and I was a bit slow to realize that a fresh constellation of galleries there (Nature Morte, Cash/Newhouse, International With Monument) were showing art much more to my liking than the inflatable children’s toys of the waning Neo-Expressionist craze. This second wave favored conceptually crisp work by artists fluent in several media: Robert Gober, Gretchen Bender, Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley, and Jeff Koons.

But year two at the Voice brought a distinct slackening of interest in the art world, art, artists, and, frankly, the sound of my own voice. It was also the year when all the galleries began fleeing the East Village. The rents kept soaring, driving some places out of business, while galleries that were making plenty wanted much larger spaces for their money, in one of the two real power centers of the art world, Soho and 57th Street. The East Village had already become a zoo, and NYU would go on to plant some ugly dormitories down and unleash thousands of rich kids whose idea of art was grazing the streets and poking into boutiques while asserting their pathologies by screaming into cell phones. But hey, shit happens.

And, as it happens, that’s also the most succinct word to describe my third and final year as the senior art critic at the Voice. The job was powerful for one reason: Besides the Times, the Voice was one of the few places shows were reviewed when they were still up. You could move the merchandise while it was out on the rack. And I had become scramble-headed by the parasitic opportunism that too many artists, dealers, and collectors disguised as friendship, deep respect, or even sexual interest. In fairness to some who were my actual friends, my own bad behavior, triggered by the several drugs I took, got infinitely ickier thanks to having this job—which was basically to judge them in public. Of course, some of those lovely friends dropped me like a used paper towel right after I quit. Which, when I started publishing novels, they all learned to regret.

I still live in the East Village, but now I live in a luxury neighborhood, thanks mostly to an insignificant hiccup in the long burp of art history that created a seismic shift in the history of New York property values. (You knew it was all finished when the methadone clinic moved out.) While this has left the squalor of my apartment building completely intact, an architectural pentimento of former times, being able to get a deli delivery at four in the morning is among many happy improvements that hiccup left in its echoing wake.

I’m not prone to much sentimentality, but you should treasure your own history, however weird it is. William Burroughs once told me, “People like us are lucky because every shitty thing that happens to us is just more material.” So I wouldn’t miss the New Museum show for anything. I want to remember the many people I love who are gone and remind myself how much I love the ones who are still here. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: If you live long enough, you even get fond of people you thought you hated.

One Brief, Scuzzy Moment