ABC No Rio in lower Manhattan: proving that art can break out
recalls the East Village of the '80s
spirit behind the art
recently published two issues about the 1980s. I got so wrapped
up in what I read on their Web site that I actually went out and
bought the issues.
In general I'm not wild about the magazine, though
I felt I ought to be. But Artforum often feels like the venue for
all those dissertations, theories and degrees acquired on obscure
references. Years ago I decided I didn't have to pretend to "get"
it or like it and I know I'm not alone.
But the '80s I can get that. At Rich's magazine counter
I enthusiastically said "I was there!" as I pointed to
headlines of "The '80s" on the cover, and the woman next
to me laughed. But of course not everyone was around for this particular
'80s, for this is mostly about the New York art world.
They say that only now is this era getting any kind of study. Some
time must pass. Someone said that the people who will be passing
the real judgment and assessment are about eight years old right
The recent articles are often interviews with artists who came
to fame during that decade, and they speak more like survivors or
witnesses than anything else. The art world and whatever we expected
out of ourselves changed radically in that decade. The role of the
artists changed in many ways. Some were good at that and some weren't.
One thing that kept coming up time and again was the East Village
art scene, how unusual it was, and "a moment in time that could
never be repeated." Well, not in New York perhaps.
But I see right now in Portland a growing artist-owned scene developing
very similarly to what happened then in New York.
Everywhere, art: The East Village in the 1980s was what it was.
No, we don't have people like Francesco Clemente, major international
art stars, moving to Portland ... yet.
But all this DIY activity, as it is now called that running
into brick walls of the establishment and the frustration which
follows, that opening of your own space and showing your friends'
art, well, that is running rampant in Portland.
It's an epidemic and it's good.
I'll never forget the first time I visited the East Village art
scene. There were more than 100 galleries in a very small patch
of rundown real estate, and almost every one of those places was
run by a non-business person, if you know what I mean.
You could literally go from door to door and block to block and
find some outsider, some freak just like yourself. It was all one
big unrenovated ghetto, but it was all about art. It was in the
bars, too, and in the cafes.
I remember going to a party at one of those cash-machine lobbies
at a bank. All kinds of impromptu things were happening, but nothing
amazing. Still, I recall thinking that if this party happened anyplace
else, what significance could it possibly have? But it was New York
and that was enough. People taking over cash-machine lobbies and
doing weird performance art.
I'm not here to tell you that it was all good art. I was blown
away by how much lousy art there was, and yet, what a loud ruckus
it made! But for quite some time afterward, it was not cool to talk
about your involvement in the East Village. The short-term assessment
was that it was a joke and a free-for-all and bad art. If people
had shows there, they took them off their exhibition histories.
I never did, as I had too few exhibitions in New York as it was.
But I wasn't ashamed of my time spent there, and I had a feeling
that history would bear me out. People would eventually look back
and be able to recognize that it was a movement of its own. There
were unique things about it and, of course, some cream rose to the
Some think that nothing major has happened in New York in over
40 years; nothing original and of itself. I don't agree. The East
Village art scene gathered Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and
others who definitely bear the test of time. The particular activity
and self-made style was elsewhere for sure but it made a huge crescendo
in the East Village. And what happened in that era and that area
is still affecting art today.
One artist who wants to see that the history gets written is Mark
Kostabi, who made his initial mark at the time. In writings on his
(and also on Artnet.com)
he has made a point of digging up what others buried or minimized.
He, along with Baird Jones (a constant fixture in New York), have
published "Mark Kostabi and the East Village Art Scene: 1983-1987."
One of the reasons that the East Village scene never reached its
potential and got panned so much afterward is because most of the
greatest personalities died. Basquiat and Haring, Wojnarwicz and
Greer Lankton and Cookie Mueller. The list is long. Many of the
best and the brightest never made it to any kind of mid-career status.
A good epidemic: Zeitgeist is part of Portland's growing scene.
But like those days, the most exciting thing about the art activity
in Portland today is the number of makeshift spaces. They're all
over the city. And once again, it's not really the art itself which
is so exciting, but the spirit behind. From that spirit, something
substantial is bound to rise.
There are shows I have seen, too many to recount, from which I
walked away and mused to myself that it was really nothing new and
reminded me of the East Village. I had seen it all, as they say.
But I know that such a situation is no bad thing and the time and
location always assure that things pan out differently. The verdict
isn't in yet, but in the process the power and the attention gets