Sitting in the New Museum theater last Thursday night with an audience full of old-school punk and avant-garde musicians and artists such as Alan W. Moore, Coleen Fitzgibbon and Becky Howland, who were all a part of Collaborative Projects, the artist collective that founded ABC No Rio and organized the Times Square Show, I witnessed a generation of New York art and culture defining their own historical importance.
Connected to the New Museum’s excellent exhibition Come Closer: Art Around the Bowery, 1969-1989, the panel discussion “Parallel Lines: Visual Art, CBGB and Downtown Nightlife” attempted to answer the question of just how much did punk and Downtown clubs such as CBGB and the Mudd Club influence the visual art of that period.
Led by artist, art historian and creator of the seminal punk art resource 98 Bowery, Marc H. Miller, the panel featuredPunk Magazine‘s co-founder John Holmstrom, James Chance and the Contortions and the Bush Tetras guitarist Pat Place, nightclub documentary photographer Marcia Resnick and Arturo Vega, the artistic director for The Ramones.
Even though they influenced different aspects of the punk scene, the panelists all participated in 1978’s Punk Art exhibition, curated by Miller and his sometimes artistic partner, Bettie Ringma, at the Washington Project for the Arts in DC.
Rather than theorize on the influence of the music on visual art during the period from 1969–1989, each panelist discussed their own artistic contribution and the unquestionably strong connection between their work and Downtown nightlife.
Beginning the panel with an art historical explanation, Miller asserted that the influence of punk and nightclubs on visual art cannot be separated from the overly conceptual art that was being shown in Soho during the early 1970’s.
As Miller explained to me:
“I was involved making art in Soho, which in the early 70s was the more radical type of art was conceptual art. It was a pretty closed, there wasn’t a lot of opportunities to show and most of the art was basically overly intellectualized, formal and self-referential. Obscure stuff that was communicating to very few people.”
Like Miller, photographer Marcia Resnick also began her artistic career in the more formalist conceptual art before beginning to document the musicians such as David Byrne and Johnny Thunders and nightclub personalities from Anya Phillips to Divine.
Due to the conceptual art being shown in Soho, which alienated many artists and cultural creators, the beginning of CBGB and the other clubs around the Bowery sent shock waves through the artistic community.
As Miller, who lived on the Bowery recalls:
“Then suddenly, there was a whole thing beginning at CBGB. It was like a catalyst, a magnet. And there were a lot of artists who started to gravitate to it because it had all this energy and was beginning to get hype. Everyone was living in the same lofts and Lower East Side apartments. There was a baby boom moment where everyone was moving to New York and there was a lot of intermixing.”
Many of the panelists found their niche directly within the punk scene such as Pat Place, who came to New York as an artist after getting her BFA at an art school in Chicago, but instead, fell in love with the immediacy of no wave music, the more conceptual, chaotic and almost unlistenable descendant of punk.
Others like Miller and Resnick began to make art about their participation in the CBGB scene. For example, Miller and Bettie Ringma began a series of paparrazi self portraits entitled Bettie Visits CBGB featuring photographs of Ringma with Debbie Harry and the Ramones. Painter Curt Hoppe then would create an oil painting version of these photographs like “Bettie & The Ramones “(1978) and convince the band members to sign the canvas.
What was not directly addressed in the panel but is unquestionably visible in Come Closer: Art on the Bowery, 1969-1989 is the influence of punk and Downtown nightlife on visual art that does not obviously reference the musicians and nightlife personalities.
Looking at the photograph of Colab member and Fashion Moda co-director Joe Lewis performing at 5 Bleecker Street, a DIY exhibition venue opened by Coleen Fitzgibbon in her loft studio, the connection between nightlife and art seems to be the sense of urgency, drive, and determination to create their own space of creativity and experimentation.
As Arturo Vega explained on the panel:
“Punk to me was always about doing the best with what you have, whatever technology or resources you have, but don’t let anything stop you”.
Reflecting on the panel discussion as well as the New Museum’s exhibition, what we now seem to be seeing is a generation of punk rockers and punk artists trying to understand and also inscribe their own role into art and New York history. That is most likely why the audience was made up of noticeably more artists and musicians who were a part of that scene than younger art enthusiasts.
For many years, punk art and the Downtown scene was ignored by art historians and critics. Perhaps it was not conceptual enough, too immediate, too DIY, too gritty and maybe even some of it wasn’t very good.
However with the recent proliferation of exhibitions such as the Times Square Show Revisited at the Hunter College Art Galleries, books such as John Holmstrom’s upcoming The Best of Punk Magazine and re-released albums, art historians, and institutions can no longer ignore the art, music, films and cultural achievements of the punk generation.
Leaving the panel walking onto the new Bowery — the Bowery of John Varvatos, the Bowery Hotel, designer restaurants and stores, and even, the New Museum with its shiny architecture — the Bowery is clearly not what it once was. What we’re left with now is trying to understand what happened from 1969–1989 and why.
And also trying to understand how even though so much has changed on the Bowery, the Bush Tetra’s “Too Many Creeps” still seems to resonate.
“Parallel Lines: Visual Art, CBGB and Downtown Nightlife” took place at The New Museum on Thursday, December 13 at 7pm.
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