That 80s Show

Famous Negro Athletes #4 (1981) by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“I showed some of this work to my students at Columbia, and none of them knew any of it,” says Dan Cameron, curator of “East Village USA,” the December show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. “These extremely educated artists, who could tell you anything about Dutch Conceptualism in the seventies, didn’t know about the eighties East Village scene.” The seedy enclave where collectors rubbed shoulders with junkies has been scrubbed clean by the real-estate boom. Meanwhile, the era’s art has been all but forgotten.

With work by more than 50 artists including Nan Goldin, Peter Halley, and Jack Smith, the show pieces together some of the competing legacies of East Village art—punk expressionism and graffiti in the early years, appropriation and Neo-Geo later on. “In five years, we moved from Basquiat to Koons,” says Cameron. “I can’t think of an equivalent span since then.” He’s tried to preserve, in a series of “period” rooms, the eclectic character of the scene’s storefront galleries: Gracie Mansion, Pat Hearn, International With Monument.

“The East Village scene was the last gasp of a certain tendency in the art world: the idea that one movement replaces another, in a kind of patricide,” says Cameron. “Now people find the notion of getting all worked up over certain styles to be kind of quaint.”

East Village USA, at the New Museum, December 3 through March 19, 2005.

That 80s Show