Interviews

The Dirty Scene of Downtown New York

by Emily Colucci on August 10, 2012

Flyer for Patti Smith/Television concert at Max's Kansas City

Flyer for Patti Smith/Television concert at Max’s Kansas City (click to enlarge; all images courtesy Fales Library & Special Collections)

From artist David Wojnarowicz’s glasses to advertisements for the Pyramid Club in the zine the East Village Eye, signs from Bronx nonprofit Fashion Moda to flyers advertising performances by punk and No Wave legends Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch and Patti Smith, the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University is no ordinary library. Fales holds the Downtown Collection, an archive of art, books, photographs, videos, objects, journals and other materials from the New York City Downtown scene’s iconic figures and art spaces.

The director of the library is Marvin Taylor, who started the Downtown Collection in 1993 when he began working at NYU. The collection has become a major force in promoting the importance of the Downtown scene, inspiring a host of exhibitions on the grimy time in New York history from the mid-1960s to early 1990s. Discovering the Downtown Collection when I was a New York newbie, it opened my eyes to a whole world of institutional, gender and sexuality critique.

I spoke with Taylor about the development of the Downtown Collection, nostalgia for the Downtown scene and what would have happened to these art objects had he not stepped in.

Emily Colucci: You began the Downtown Collection in 1993. What was the first collection you acquired that started this mission to preserve Downtown New York culture?

Marvin Taylor: It was Ron Kolm’s [poet and bookseller] collection. I met Ron through a mutual friend who was a writer, who said, “Hey Ron, there’s this guy at NYU who is interested in finding out about the Downtown scene. You gotta go. There’s money.” There wasn’t a lot of money, but there was some money. So I went and looked at his material. He was living in a two-bedroom apartment in Long Island City. He and his wife and his two boys were living in one bedroom and the other bedroom was his archive of Downtown material. He had worked at New Morning Books in Soho, St Mark’s Bookshop and another book store in the Lower East Side. He knew all the writers and was also interested in the art scene. He kept vertical files on people. We were able to get that, and that started the core of the collection. He still comes by about once a month with material.

The next collection was Between C & D, which anchored the collection in the literary scene. I knew we were going to a broader kind of collection but didn’t want to scare the horses, so it seemed appropriate to collect the fiction. The East Village scene was certainly a big resurgence of fiction when earlier scenes were all about poetry. The Beats and the New York School, but suddenly there was experimental fiction — Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, David Wojnarowicz, Gary Indiana and Lynne Tillman.

Then David Wojnarowicz came next. It was early on in 1997, from his estate. Then Judson Memorial Church donated — that was a huge step which represented the early history of what was going on. From there it just expanded.

EC: Where do you think these materials — the flyers, journals, magazines, etc. — would be if you hadn’t acquired them for a university library?

MT: A lot of it would be in the trash — one of the things that occurred to me about the time I moved to NYU. An acquaintance passed away, and his family from West Virginia came to his loft and started throwing things out, including three Miró etchings. They were homophobic, and he died of complications from AIDS. I realized this was happening a lot and happening to a whole scene. I’m afraid many, many things would have disappeared; a lot of these people’s lives were ephemeral. If David Wojnarowicz hadn’t inherited Peter Hujar’s loft and fought to retain it, its hard to say how much of David’s stuff would have been kept. He cared for his journals, but the apartment gave him a place to save things.

There’s still a lot of stuff out there in people’s hands. I tried to make a place that was safe for it and safe from the institutions as well. So much of the Downtown scene is about institutional critique, and I wanted to make sure it could still work its magic in trying to question the structures of the library.

EC: What inspired you to start the Downtown Collection?

MT: I looked back recently on it. On a Day Without Art last year, we had closed the exhibition space with black cloth and showed the film Last Address by Ira Sachs. In the film, he takes open-air video of the windows of about 12 to 15 people who died of AIDS. And when that was showing, I realized that it was a response to the trauma in New York of that period. Of course, I loved the work as a college student — at least the little we could get in the Midwest. I believe in building local and regional collections. So it worked perfectly. We have about 12,000 linear feet of Downtown material — 70,000 media elements, all original, all primary documentation; probably about 15,000 books; 600 magazines in various states, which are the hardest things to find. They are essential for understanding the scene.

"Marlon Brando: The Original Punk" from Punk Magazine

“Marlon Brando: The Original Punk” from Punk Magazine

 EC: Having been interested in Downtown art and the scene for a long time now, I’ve noticed a huge change in the growing popularity of the period. From exhibitions to books to articles to copy-cat artists, it seems that everyone right now is into the Downtown scene. Do you think there has been a change in the knowledge and popularity of this type of art and culture?

MT: I think its true. I’d like to think we helped to make that happen. In fact, I think we probably did. No one was collecting the material when we started, which gave the scene a bit of legitimacy. But then the exhibitions — The Downtown Show: The New York Scene 1974–1984 and Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives 1961–1991 — that the Grey Art Gallery has done with us have tried to locate it within its historical moment. Once people see it, they go, “Wait a minute, so much of what’s going on now is embroyonic there.” That’s what I thought. The more scholarship that comes out, the more credibility it gets. But along with that, of course, comes the monetization of archives.

EC: Along those lines, it seems that the growing popularity of art from the 1970s and ’80s in New York comes with a pretty heavy nostalgia. Whether it’s coming from a desire to escape the Disney-fied, Bloomberg-run New York of the present or for an art scene where public funds were available for artist-run spaces, it seems that nostalgia for the period is extremely prevalent right now. What do you think about this?

MT: I hate nostalgia. I think nostalgia is the death of criticism. Now, to be fair, I said this to Pat Crain in the English Department, and she said, “Oh, nostalgia can be used in interesting ways.” She’s right. There is a politics of nostalgia that’s interesting. However, I think its deadly for artists to become nostalgic, because then you can’t create any new work. I distrust the mythologizing of scenes. I’ve tried to not do that because I think it doesn’t do any good. It was pretty horrible in New York during that time, as anyone will tell you. It was awful living in the Lower East Side. It was dangerous. As Cynthia Carr describes in her biography of David Wojnarowicz, she walked down the middle of the streets because she didn’t want to be close to any buildings for fear of getting mugged. Ron Kolm remembers it being like the Wild West. The 2nd ave subway had been dug up. It was dirty and dusty and you’d walk on planks across construction. It’s nothing like it is over there now. Even in ’87, when I came to New York, it was still fairly dangerous. There were streets you’d go on and streets you’d never go on, but it was still pretty cleaned up from 10 years earlier.

EC: It also seems like more artists, curators, writers and other cultural figures are interested in the idea of archives. 

MT: Its hit the art world pretty heavily. There are people who have been working with archives for a while, but most of the work’s really bad. People don’t have a really good conception of what an archive is. There’s a lot of crap coming over from academia — misrepresentations of what archives are. The worst is Derrida publishing his useless book Archive Fever. It’s a useless piece of shit. It has nothing to do with archives, really, but people read it as if it’s some sort of primer of archive work. The best is to read Foucault to see what an archive is.

An archive is nothing but the fossil evidence of experience. For the most time, the disembodied evidence. The question I’m fascinated with is, what is the relationship of the archive to the body? The archive as a stand-in for the absent body, because then you could talk about the fetish of the archival object, etc.

The Rimbaud mask used by David Wojnarowicz in his photographic series "Rimbaud in New York"

The Rimbaud mask used by David Wojnarowicz in his photographic series “Rimbaud in New York” shows the disembodied nature of archives

EC: What are your favorite materials in the collection?

MT: Oh dear. There are things I always show people — the magic box by David Wojnarowicz, which is an orange crate filled with the physical representations of his metaphors. This is the single item that expresses what we do differently: we collect objects. Artists don’t work like writers. It’s not about chronology or a development of a single work through its various states. The magic box exemplifies that for me. Also, talking about things that stand in closer to the body. His glasses are interesting, since David’s so much about seeing, the eyes and the role of the gaze.

Another is the journal from Patti Smith. It’s Richard Hell’s journal that Patti used the first 40 or so pages of, then gave it to him. He used it from ’74 to ’79. It’s filled with his thoughts about film and literature. At the end, he was coming up with a Symbolist fan zine. He writes a list of first- and second-tier influences on him and the punk scene, which all steps around modernism and looks back to French Symbolism, Borges and Sontag. He lists people like Huysman, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Poe. I see that in a lot of people in the scene, looking back at 20 years of collecting this stuff.

EC: What are the most recently acquired collections?

MT: We received the Exit Art archive. It’s 350 linear feet, so I know its going to be used heavily. What a great space. We’re really honored to have them offer it to us. When they decided they were going to close, the board thought of us as the natural fit for their archive.

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