New Design

East Village Art

East Village Art Collage
Started: 1982
Ended: 1986
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As outsiders we finally had a place where we were embraced.
Jeff Koons

Summary of East Village Art

Amidst the crumbling buildings of what was then the most dangerous neighborhood in New York, young artists, misfits and rebels came together to create art in their own way. Amplifying and borrowing from aesthetics previously overlooked by the existing market, particularly graffiti, collage, and DIY sculpture, the East Village Art scene provided the original context for some the biggest names in late 20th century art.

Happening alongside the intimately-related subcultural explosions of punk and hip-hop, artists and curators created spaces in their small apartments, showed rebellious and iconoclastic work to friends and neighborhood figures, and eventually created such a vibrant scene that the art market had to take notice.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Key Artists

Overview of East Village Art

East Village Art Photo

Coming from very humble beginnings in the 1980s, some East Village artists have become stars. Here, Kenny Scharf decorated a Lockheed Jetstar aircraft for a Tucson, Arizona exhibition.

Important Art and Artists of East Village Art

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Irony of the Negro Policeman (1981)

Irony of the Negro Policeman (1981)

Artist: Jean-Michel Basquiat

This painting features a stylized rendition of a black policeman, with asymmetrical proportions and threatening features, including sharp teeth and talons. The rendering of the figure is reminiscent of graffiti, its flat and varied panes of color augmented by scribbles and handwritten text. Like many other East Village artists, Basquiat began as a graffiti artist, creating his art illegally in the city streets and subways, before moving into galleries as they were established in the East Village. Like this image, much of his work blends the graffiti aesthetic with Neo-Expressionism, a style that also blossomed in the East Village in the 1980s. Basquiat suggested that he wanted "to make paintings that look as if they were made by a child." Inspiration for his artworks also comes from his Caribbean (Haitian and Puerto Rican) heritage, as well as African and Aztec visual vocabularies (he often used the West African "griot" figure, for example, as well as skulls, bones, and arrows), while also addressing contemporary social and urban issues.

Many of the figures in Basquiat's paintings were Black people he considered "heroes" or "saints" (like musician Charlie Parker, and boxer Joe Louis), whom he honored with a crown painted upon their heads. The Black policeman in this work, however, is not honored with a crown. Here Basquiat instead presents a critique of the police system, which then, as now, overwhelmingly subjects Black individuals to oppression by usually white officers. With this work, Basquiat accuses the 'Negro Policeman' of the title of participating in that system, thereby enslaving his fellow African Americans. The way in which the policeman is rendered (cartoon-like, with an unnatural scribbled face and grotesquely asymmetrical body), serves as a form of mockery. The intersecting lines in the figure's hat and face invoke the image of a cage, at once symbolizing the way in which the policeman imprisons his fellow African Americans, as well as the negro policeman's own imprisonment within a racist police system (reinforced by the inclusion of the word "PAWN" at the lower right side of the image, as well as the placement of the black figure against a stark white background).

Further allusion to racial tension is created by the way in which the colors in the painting appear to fight for dominance, and the concept of hypocrisy is underscored by the mask-like quality of the figure's face. Although the piece is presented primarily as a critique of Black policemen, some scholars have also read it as a self-portrait of Basquiat himself, as an artist of color vying for recognition, acceptance, and success in a predominantly White art world while simultaneously trying to stay true to his racial and cultural roots.

Keith Haring: Untitled (1982)

Untitled (1982)

Artist: Keith Haring

Keith Haring was a central figure in the East Village Art scene of the 1980s, along with his close friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat. His art is now emblematic of the movement, both in terms of its style and the artist's origins. Haring began as a graffiti artist and continued with the aesthetic he developed in public spaces even after he started to show in galleries, whilst exploring subject matter that promoted hope for the future and brotherly love amongst all people regardless of race, sexuality or identity. In this image, two dark figures without distinguishing features casually embrace, with both the background and the radiating lines around them rendered in bright, luminous colour.

Haring's works are all characterized by simple forms, heavy lines, and bold colors. Many of his works feature androgynous figures, dogs, and the "radiant baby", which he adopted as his tag and called it "the purest and most positive experience of human existence." The lines radiating outward from the radiant baby, and from other figures in his pieces (such as the two embracing figures seen in this image), were meant to represent "spiritual light glowing from within, as though the [figure] were a holy figure from a religious painting, only the glow is rendered in the visual vocabulary of a cartoon." However, these radiating lines have also been understood as the "aura" of radioactivity. This is most commonly read into Haring's work which features the radiant baby atop a mushroom cloud, surrounded by three angels, an image created for an antinuclear rally in New York. In it Haring links the death and destruction of thermonuclear warfare with the biblical concept of the apocalypse.

The two embracing figures in this image are likely meant to also promote and celebrate acceptance of homosexual relationships. This was a key message throughout much of Haring's work, as he wished to challenge the traditional views of the Catholic and fundamentalist churches toward homosexuality (having himself been an active member of the Jesus People throughout his teen years). By including lines radiating outward from the figures (a common motif in religious artworks, such as in representations of the Virgin Mary), Haring borrowed religious iconography in order to suggest the figures' spiritual redemption through their love for one another.

Art critic and curator Bruce D. Kurtz notes that "most of Haring's figures are without gender, race, age (except the Radiant Child), or even facial features. They represent humankind, not men or women, not whites or blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans, not adults, the elderly, or children, but everyone." The accessibility of Haring's works were also enhanced by their frequent placement in public spaces, like city streets and subway signs, inviting people of all cultures, classes, and educational backgrounds to engage with the work, an egalitarian and evangelistic attitude at odds with the elitism of the established art world of the 1980s. Like other artists of the East Village scene, Haring was keen to make his work accessible, engaging and fun.

In 1986 in SoHo, Haring opened the Pop Shop, which he referred to as an "antigallery", where visitors could purchase posters, T-shirts, and other objects designed by Haring for low prices. Visual Studies professor Natalie E. Phillips asserts that through the Pop Shop, Haring "made his work available to a much broader range of people, and countered the notion that true art is a rare and precious thing appreciated by only a select few".

Lady Pink and Jenny Holzer: You are Trapped on the Earth so You Will Explode (1983)

You are Trapped on the Earth so You Will Explode (1983)

Artist: Lady Pink and Jenny Holzer

This work is one of many joint projects between two female artists who created several interventions in public spaces together. The two artists are Lady Pink, a graffiti artist who worked with spray paint, and Jenny Holzer, who, at that time, frequently worked with wheat paste posters and is known for incorporating text into her works, commenting on war, politics, violence, human behaviour, consumer society, and the divide between social classes. Collaborations like these frequently occurred amongst the East Village artists, and was encouraged by curators like Patti Astor, founder of the FUN Gallery.

In the mid 1980s, Holzer invited Lady Pink to come to her studio on the Lower East Side, where the two collaborated on several works on canvas. Lady Pink would paint an image, on top of which Holzer would superimpose phrases from her Survival Series (1983). Other works in the series featured phrases like "DON'T SHOOT CIVILIANS", "TRUST VISIONS THAT DON'T FEATURE BUCKETS OF BLOOD", "IF YOU ARE CONSIDERED USELESS NO ONE WILL FEED YOU ANYMORE", and "MEN DON'T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE".

The work pictured here indicates the pervasive fear of nuclear threat during the 1980s. The fiery red figures, one of whom has their black skeleton visible, mouth open and head thrown back as if howling in pain, appear as if depicted at the moment of being struck by a nuclear blast. This image suggests through Holzer's text the inability of escape as all humans share a world, a simple statement juxtaposed against the horror of violence on an unremarkable city street. Several other East Village artists, such as Keith Haring, also explored the idea of nuclear threat in their works. Artist Kenny Scharf explained that "in the 1980s, everyone was afraid of the bomb. In New York City, we thought we should have as much fun as possible now because soon we will all blow up! Let's party hard! Let's party harder than anyone has ever partied!"

The placement of art into public spaces was an important activity for many East Village artists, hence Holzer's collaboration with Lady Pink. As art writer and critic Grace Glueck explains, these artists wanted art to "abandon its traditional distance from life and make closer contact with a larger public". Holzer once explained that "My legacy from growing up in the 60's is that I want to make art that's understandable, has some relevance and importance to almost anyone. And once I've made the stuff, the idea is get it out to the people. I want them to encounter it in different ways, find it on the street, in electric signs and so forth."

Useful Resources on East Village Art

Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church

"East Village Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments Ideas added by Lewis Church
Available from:
First published on 06 May 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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