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In 1990, the essayist and activist Barbara Ehrenreich published a collection of newspaper and magazine articles from the 1980s, which she titled The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed.
In the book’s introduction, she refers to the “Reagan revolution” as a “finely balanced mix of cosmetic refinement and moral coarseness which brought $200,000 china to the White House dinner table and mayhem to the beleaguered peasantry of Central America”:
In economics, we borrowed from the Bourbons; in foreign policy, we drew on themes fashioned by the nomad warriors of the Eurasian steppes. In spiritual matters, we emulated the braying intolerance of our archenemies and esteemed customers, the Shi’ite fundamentalists.
Swap “Trump” for “Reagan,” and, well, you get the idea. The difference between then and now is that the stakes are astronomically higher — politically, morally, and not to put too fine a point on it, existentially. As Dr. Hunter S. Thompson prophesied in Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 1980s (1988): “It is difficult for the ordinary voter to come to grips with the notion that a truly evil man, a truthless monster with the brains of a king rat and the soul of a cockroach, is about to be sworn in as president for the next four years.” This isn’t the time to tend your own garden.
We in the creative community, for our part, suddenly find ourselves living in a nation personified by a man of staggering crassness, who in the pursuit of power has thoroughly polluted the all-but-lost ideal of an informed electorate, trafficking in the crudest of stereotypes, epithets and presumptions. His financial involvement in beauty pageants and professional wrestling is particularly emblematic, in its monetization of women as objects of desire and men as primal brutes. The extremes couldn’t be sharper. And his glitz-bedazzled aesthetic is as Bourbon as his top-down economics, with its intimations of the Sun King on his gilded throne.
Just as the 2016 vote ruptured the progressive momentum of the Obama era, the 1980 election signaled a departure from the idealism of the Carter administration, which was driven by the primacy of human rights, toward an ethos of me-first opportunism sanctioned by a genial television personality-turned-corporate mouthpiece-turned-reactionary politician (albeit one with eight years of governing experience). It was a decade in which the existential threat of AIDS, exacerbated by governmental inaction and coupled with rampant militarism, environmental degradation, and corporate deregulation, with its attendant greed, fraud, and abuse, congealed into a widespread sensation of apocalyptic malaise.
(It should also be remembered that Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission was responsible for abolishing the Fairness Doctrine, which required that broadcasters provide equal time for contrasting political views — a dramatic policy shift that led to the right-wing dominance of talk radio and the sycophantic alignment of Fox News with the Republican party.)
It may be cold comfort to invoke the fatal cycles of history, in which progress inevitably eats its own tail — or to recall that the modern era was spawned by the double-backed beast of the Enlightenment and the Terror — but here we are.
The parallels between 1980 and 2016 are perhaps more atmospheric than historical — for one, Manhattan’s East Village and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, once hubs for young artists, have gone from dangerously cheap to safely prohibitive — but the country’s abrupt right turn (which was a far more jarring electoral mood swing than the transition from Bill Clinton’s corporate triangulation to George W. Bush’s faux-compassionate conservatism) will prompt at least some reflection on the way artists channeled their energy to deal with it.
As it happens, there are currently two exhibitions in New York (both of which, unfortunately, close tomorrow) that offer glimpses into the bonding of artistic communities in defiance of the encroaching darkness, first in rage and then in compassion.
Paradise: underground culture in NYC 1978-84 at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects on the Lower East Side, is a salon-style trove of art and ephemera documenting the rude and raucous music and art scene that surged out of mid-’70s punk and went incandescent with the onset of the Reagan years.
It was a time of tossing off strictures: artists rebelled against the constraints of style and specialization, knocking out music, movies, and manifestos with abandon, commandeering Xerox machines to produce editions of low-cost prints alongside fliers and posters as advertisements for themselves. The choice of materials boiled down to whatever was at hand, and any attempt at slickness would have struck most of the practitioners as some kind of joke.
But such tactics shouldn’t imply that this ragtag band of self-professed outcasts was incapable of perfectionism or stunning exercises in beauty, as witnessed in Kathleen Cooney’s silkscreened pink kite against a powder-blue sky on the cover of Arthur Russell’s LP Tower of Meaning (1983), or Jean-Michel Basquiat’s stark black-and-white design for a rare 12-inch hip-hop single, Beat Bop (also 1983), by Rammellzee and K-Rob, a record Basquiat produced.
Along with the album covers and concert posters (Glenn Branca, Liquid Idiot, Theoretical Girls), there are photocopied fliers advertising movies by such legendary figures as Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, Beth & Scott B, John Lurie, James Nares, and Gary Indiana. Steven Harvey, the gallery director who also curated the show, has gathered DVDs of almost all of the films promoted on the fliers, as well as related documentaries, which are displayed on a flat-screen TV mounted on an adjacent wall.
The show features paintings, drawings, and photographs by David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Christopher Wool (early blot works in enamel on metal), Jane Dickson, Richard Morrison, Zoe Leonard, Bill Rice, and Walter Robinson, among many others, with the inclusion of Wojnarowicz and Hujar invariably bringing to mind the devastation wrought by AIDS upon this community and countless others.
But the controlled bursts of raw energy bounding through Paradise fly in the face of despair, reflecting the natural-born, scuffed and scruffy resistance of young artists to the reactionary politics foisted upon them (as well as the culture wars to come), refusing to be stunned into silence, doing everything they could to be seen and heard.
Wojnarowicz hovers like a fallen angel over Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983–84 at 205 Hudson Gallery in Tribeca, curated by Jonathan Weinberg and featuring the photographs of Andreas Sterzing, who documented the artists’ takeover of this massive, ramshackle, abandoned shipping terminal jutting precariously over the Hudson River.
The pier’s potential as a monumental site for sprawling, absurdly unmarketable artworks, painted directly on the walls and installed across the stairways, was first recognized by Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo, who told friends who told friends, and a loosely-knit community was born.
The place was as dangerous as it was huge, with crumbling ceilings and gaps in the floorboards opening onto the churning river below. No one went there at night. In a statement (which supplied the exhibition with its title) published in the Fall-Winter 1983-84 issue of the newsprint journal Benzene and reprinted in the show’s catalogue, Wojnarowicz and Bidlo described what they found:
There is no rent, no electricity, no running water, no dealers, no sales, no curatorial interferences. There is 24 hour access, enthusiasm, deep sudden impulse and some sense of possibility for dreaming.
But reality waited outside the walls, in all of its ominousness, as well as persistent stirrings of hope:
In recent weeks the police are cracking down: arresting people, confiscating work, sealing and re-sealing the entranceways. A body was found of a person who had been shot and stabbed. Work continues. Will continue. Rapid changes in the environment. New people arrive everyday. Word continues to spread.
The pier was demolished in 1984, and virtually all of the art went with it. The show at 205 Hudson, then, is composed of works contemporaneous with the period, which feel, for the most part, solidly worked-through despite their DIY aesthetic — even pieces that, at the time, seemed like slapdash evocations of expressionism, such as the wild caricatures of Rick Prol or the fluidly brushed, heavily chiaroscuro’d heads and bodies of Luis Frangella.
Many of the paintings look as if they could have been made yesterday: Jean Foos’s swirling forms that split the difference between the tangible and the abstract; the bearded and naked man cowering under a table (and a turkey) by Michael Ottersen; the awkwardly slapstick figures running across a sheet of shaped paper by Judy Glantzman; the bluntly articulated, boldly colored heads of Keith Davis; and the painted silhouettes on vinyl LPs made by Jane Bauman between 1981 and ’82, one of which evokes the 1981 attempt by John Hinckley, Jr., on the life of Ronald Reagan.
Other works include a syringe-studded, large-scale portrait on curved Homasote by Valeriy Gerlovin; Peter White’s madly scribbled drawings of disembodied heads in graphite crayon and oil stick from his Oil/Diamonds/Water/God/War series (1983); the haunting, deeply shadowed black-and-white photographs of Dirk Rowntree; and David Finn’s alarmingly lifelike figures made out of garbage bags and battered cardboard boxes.
The contemporary context infusing the show, which is installed in the same building as the MFA studios of Hunter College, seems to fast-forward a purposefully problematic painting like Mike Bidlo’s mock-Pollock, “Study in Beige, Green, Red & Black” (1983), away from its original intentions and pause it in the context of today’s concerns, making it less of a formalist conceit and more of a thumb in the market’s eye, especially in light of the Knoedler scandals and other recent high-profile forgeries.
Among the few mementos that survived the demolition of the pier is Wojnarowicz’s “He flew his plane…” (1983), painted on a window shade bracket and rescued by Jean Foos. Across the length of the wooden bracket, which extends perpendicularly from the wall, the artist has written in pen on one side, “He flew his plane straight out over the Atlantic til it ran out of gas,” and on the other, “I prepared myself for this world the way one prepares a couch or bed for an expected lover.”
This simple piece of art, composed of two enigmatic statements and three bands of color — red, white, and green — is unexpectedly, remarkably moving, and the range of materials and imagery Wojnarowicz harnesses in the other works in this show, from supermarket sales signs to fish-shaped hunks of driftwood, is a vivid reminder of the enormity of talent lost to AIDS.
This was a community that came together at the advent of a crisis, becoming one another’s families and caregivers and guardians of artistic legacies that ended much too quickly. And the grandly ambitious art-for-the-hell-of-it they produced on the walls of the pier — the kind of work, as Wojnarowicz and Bidlo described it in their statement, “that would allow anyone the chance to explore any image in any material on any surface they choose” — is a reminder of the collective power of that community.
“This is something no gallery would tolerate, nor be large enough to accommodate,” they continued. The art that was made here was impractical, unsalable, virtually inaccessible, but profoundly important for the interlocking strings of friends who made it, and who would coalesce around the spirit of its making to illuminate a path through the dark days ahead.
Paradise: underground culture in NYC 1978-84 continues at Stephen Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through through November 20.
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983–84 continues at the 205 Hudson Street Gallery of Hunter College Art Galleries (205 Hudson Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through November 20.