Essays

The East Village Eye: Where Art, Hip Hop, and Punk Collided

The January 1982 issue of The East Village Eye (cover photograph by Adrian Panaro. All photos courtesy Leonard Abrams unless otherwise stated)

Between May 1979 and January 1987, the East Village Eye breathlessly covered the East Village art scene. Indiscriminate in its interests, the magazine charted the rise of hip hop, graffiti, and punk, and is widely credited with contributing to the intermingling of several New York scenes. “The Eye’s unswerving editorial position was to advocate for the neighborhood’s uniqueness,” wrote curator Dan Cameron in the catalogue for the New Museum’s 2004 exhibition East Village USA, “even when money became a central part of the equation.”

The back issues of the Eye are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the 1980s art scene. A staggering number of art world luminaries crossed paths during the magazine’s tenure. A brief list of contributors includes David Wojnarowicz, Richard Hell, Cookie Mueller, Lucy Lippard, and Rene Ricard. Art stars such as Patti Astor, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Vito Acconci were featured on the magazine’s cover, as were musicians such as Run DMC, Annie Lennox, and the Beastie Boys.

On September 18, Printed Matter hosted an exhibition of Eye ephemera and held a mini symposium entitled “How Hip Hop Came Downtown.” Speakers included the Eye’s editor and publisher Leonard Abrams, writers and filmmakers Michael Holman and Steven Hager, artist John Ahearn, art historian Yasmin Ramirez, and legendary musician and artist Fab 5 Freddy. Though the proceedings largely focused on the origins of hip hop, all six speakers touched upon the influence of the Eye. Fab 5 Freddy expressed gratitude for the magazine’s coverage of Wild Style (1983), in which he starred alongside graffiti artists Lady Pink and Lee Quiñones. Directed by John Ahearn’s twin brother, Charlie Ahearn, the film was released during a time when New York’s graffiti scene was characterized as a scourge on the city. Sitting alongside Fab 5 Freddy was Steven Hager, who was fired from the Daily News for publishing a glowing article on graffiti art. “[The Eye] was the only place that would publish my research,” Hager quipped.

The magazine purports to be the first publication to have printed and defined the term “hip hop,” the result of an interview between Michael Holman and Afrika Bambaataa, a claim that has yet to be challenged. Keen to learn more about the magazine’s history, I interviewed Leonard Abrams at his home in Ridgewood, Queens. Prior to my arrival, Abrams had set out a large cardboard box containing a complete set of the Eye’s back catalogue. “There are over 4,000 pages” he told me proudly.

Leonard_Abrams
Leonard Abrams (photo by Liza Bear)

Abrams grew up in Spring Valley, a small village about thirty miles from Manhattan. At high school he founded an underground paper entitled The Spring Valley Alternative. “A magazine is the greatest thing,” Abrams enthused. “Its a mental world where you can put anything you want.” Abrams went on to study comparative literature at Fordham College and soon after got a job working for the Gramercy Herald. Having successfully convinced his boss to let him design an advertising supplement, Abrams considered launching his own magazine. “If I could do an ad supplement, I could do a magazine. They’re basically the same thing,” Abrams joked.

By the mid 1970s many of Abrams friends had moved to the East Village. The neighborhood was impoverished and rents were extraordinarily cheap. Arson was a major contributing factor to the neighborhood’s rapid decline. Unable to sell their properties, many landlords burned them to the ground for insurance payouts. In 1976, Abrams moved into a $135 per month apartment which he shared with a fellow bike messenger. “The East Village was very quiet,” Abrams mused. “It wasn’t at the nadir in terms of neighborhood ruin, but it was getting there fast. There was a fire every night. There wasn’t a night when a building wasn’t going up in flames, particularly east of Avenue A, which was the red line. A lot of people didn’t know that it wasn’t as dangerous as it looked.” Abrams saved up enough money to attend a graphics and paste up course where he created a dummy magazine. Soon after, he rented a basement storefront at 167 Ludlow Street, one block below Houston Street. The East Village Eye was born. “It’s all true,” the magazine’s tagline sardonically declared.

Issue one of the East Village Eye, March 1979
The first issue of the East Village Eye, May 1979; the cover, featuring Jazz musician James White, was designed by artist Christof Kohlhofer

A number of early interactions profoundly influenced the Eye’s creative direction. Abrams became acquainted with Ulli Rimkus, the owner of Max Fish, a bar which, until very recently, was located at 178 Ludlow Street. Rimkus told Abrams that an artist was looking to cast people’s faces, leading Abrams to meet sculptor John Ahearn (Abrams still has the resulting sculpture to this day). Ahearn was a member of Collaborative Projects (Colab), as was artist Christof Kohlhofer, Rimkus’s then boyfriend. “If I hadn’t met Chris[tof], the magazine would have been a lot more rock and roll and a lot less art” Abrams told me.

Kohlhofer, who had studied under Joseph Beuys, introduced Abrams to a number of local artists. Soon after, Abrams hired Kohlhofer as the first art director of the Eye. “I would credit Chris with steering the Eye more towards art, but also for injecting a Beuys-like approach. Basically doing whatever is necessary at the time.” Kohlhofer designed the Eye’s first logo, an Eye of Providence cast against the Manhattan skyline, which he drew from photographs he had taken atop the Williamsburg Bridge. “I faked the color separations with a Xerox copier,” the artist told me over email, “because there was no money for real ones.” Under Kohlhofer’s tutelage, the Eye began its much lauded tradition of commissioning artists to create centerfolds for each issue, providing greater public exposure to artists such as Christy Rupp, Ellen Berkenblit, and Futura 2000. “The paper had a lot of my artistic personality to it,” stated Kohlhofer, “and I think part of that rubbed off on the people who came after me. It showed me, that I did something good.”

A centerfold by artist Michael Roman, East Village Eye, April 1984 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Eye quickly established itself as a hybrid enterprise. Its pages consisted of reviews, essays, reports, illustrations, and poetry. Local businesses, such as bars, copy shops, fashion outlets, and nightclubs eagerly purchased advertisements (indeed, the ads are as historically fascinating as the articles). The magazine’s keen hybridity was less than enthusiastically received by the institutional art world, which viewed the growing influence of graffiti, fashion, and punk, with disdain.

In his own interview with Abrams (published in Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side, Clayton Books, 2012), painter Alexander Rubchenko remarked that the Eye was regularly attacked by the New Left “for being too wedded to an insouciant Bohemian glamour.” In an interview over the phone, Yasmin Ramirez told me that the hostility was simply a reaction against the magazine’s youth. “It perhaps looked frivolous to people who read October, but if you read the reports, the perspective was pretty multicultural and radical.” Conscious of being the Eye’s only Puerto Rican contributor, Ramirez made a concerted effort to chart the contributions of Hispanic Americans to the neighborhood, her first piece focusing on Puerto Rican botánica owners. “[The Eye] gave outsiders a place to express themselves,” Ramirez continued, “it was a little more receptive. It gave voice to what was going on and the changes that were happening.”

East Village Eye, October 1983
The October 1983 issue of the East Village Eye

Over a period of eight years, the magazine chronicled the spectacular rise and eventual implosion of the East Village art scene. Artists profiled in the Eye’s October 1983 issue included David Wojnarowicz, Kiki Smith, and Joseph Nechvatal, all of whom were lauded as members of a new “avant-garde scene” (Nechvatal is a current contributor to Hyperallergic). “One of the Eye’s most important contributions was the framing of gossip coverage in such a way that artists were treated as demi-gods” wrote Dan Cameron In East Village Eye USA. “The appearance of (Rhonda) Zwillinger or Futura at a gallery opening received the same breathless attention that Bianca (Jagger) or Andy (Warhol) would in another part of town.” Abrams agreed with Cameron’s assessment. “We gave legitimacy to people. We treated them as stars in print. Oh, you don’t know who Futura 2000 is? It’s the power of the printed page. It doesn’t matter where it’s from. If something is presented with some degree of authority, it goes straight into the public consciousness.”

A familiar narrative emerges whilst browsing through latter editions of the Eye. In April 1986 the magazine ran a feature on the rise of “The East Village Yuppie.” Sixth months earlier, the Eye’s art editor, Carlo McCormick, published an obituary for the neighborhood’s art scene. “Though the greed and envy have disbanded our beautiful community,” wrote McCormick, “the East Village will continue to exist as the simulacrum of itself. The art world is finally ready to preserve our youth like the glamorous visage of the internally decrepit Dorian Grey.”

Yuppie East Villager
An illustration from the Eye’s April 1986 feature, “The East Village Yuppie,” written by Lehman Weichselbaum and Carle VP Groome

By Abrams’s estimation, the art scene began to fall apart between 1985 and 1986. “The SoHo galleries started poaching artists, so the ‘serious’ East Village galleries decided that they had to move. They moved to what they called ‘LowBro’ (Lower Broadway) on the edge of SoHo. Once they left, all the other galleries were left looking at each other. ‘What are we doing?’ — and pfft — They started closing in droves. In two seasons it went from a hundred galleries to ten.”

At its peak, over 10,000 copies of the Eye were distributed every month. Abrams founded his own company, “New York New Papers,” to make distribution deals with other magazines including i-D., BOMB, and High Performance. Issues of the Eye could be purchased not only in Manhattan, but in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and even the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. There were hiccups along the way. The Eye aborted an attempt to go bi-weekly in 1980 (it managed to produce two issues in March that year), and appeared to go on hiatus for large stretches of ’81 (largely due to the early ’80s recession). Regardless, the Eye’s reach was a huge success for a magazine that could barely afford to pay its permanent staff. Abrams likened the staff turnover to an army in battle. “Lots of casualties,” Abrams joked. “People continually stepping up and taking the place of other people.” By 1987, Abrams decided to call it a day. “I got physically exhausted. There was more than one moment when I wanted to throw in the towel.” The collapse of the East Village gallery scene had added to the stress, resulting in less ad revenue for the magazine. The last issue of the Eye, published in January 1987, was a bumper “best of” issue, highlighting the magazine’s biggest scoops and most popular stories.

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The staff of the East Village Eye, December 1985 (Photo by Fran Vogel)

After the Eye, Abrams went on to co-found two music venues, The Milky Way and Hotel Amazon, whose acts included The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and Gang Starr. In 2006, Abrams released a feature documentary, Quilombo Country, an extensive look at the lives of Brazil’s “quilombos”, communities originally founded by runaway slaves. My overwhelming impression of Abrams is of a man continually juggling multiple interests. “I like doing everything,” Abrams mused. “I can’t envision doing the same thing all the time, [the Eye] really allowed me to explore all sorts of areas.”

Christof Kohlhoffer_East Village Eye Logo
A detail of Christof Kohlhofer’s logo for the East Village Eye, used between May 1979 and February 1980

It was only several years ago that Abrams began to consider the Eye’s legacy. “The archive was my personal responsibility. No one else was going to do it. There’s been a lot more interest in the 1980s, especially over the last couple of years, so this has been pushing me to get it out there. I really want people to know who did what, who said what, who published what, and when.” In 2012, with the aid of hired assistants, Abrams digitized every copy of the Eye. Six issues are currently available in PDF format on the magazine’s website. Abrams had planned to make every issue available, but was met with resistance by at least one former contributor who didn’t want their articles reproduced. “There’s a lot of grey around this area,” Abrams continued. “Even giving away digitized material can be problematic.” Abrams is now considering two options. The first is physically reprinting back issues (which as publisher, he is entitled to do) and then distributing them to universities and institutions for a fee. The second is publishing a book on the Eye’s history. In the meantime, copies of the Eye can be found at Printed Matter and on websites such as Gallery 98 and eBay. Abrams also intends to curate an exhibition on the Eye’s history which would include work by former East Village artists.

At the close of the interview, I asked Abrams whether he had a favorite issue of the Eye. “I love all my children,” Abrams joked. “I really do love each and every one of them. Every time it came out it was like Christmas.” For Abrams, the magazine’s combination of humor and sincerity was its greatest asset. “We were tongue in cheek and laughing about things, but at the core we took the [East Village art scene] seriously.” A recurring assessment among former readers of the Eye is that the magazine — self-styled as a “community in print” — had contributed to the neighborhood’s sense of identity.  For Christof Kohlhofer, the Eye‘s legacy is defined by its championing of creative collaboration. “The mix of fashion, music, art, politics, comics etc, the way it was presented by the Eye, the constant changing impact through all those different people who worked on the paper, and Leonard’s attitude not to interfere with that, made it a very lively subject. It had an influence on the Soho News, Village Voice and other papers to come. It brought a lot of different people together and motivated and inspired them enormously.”

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