East Village Art - History and Concepts
Beginnings of East Village Art
The Early East Village
The lower eastern portion of the island of Manhattan has always been a major sight of immigration to the United States, with successive waves of immigrant communities living and working alongside each other. During the early to mid-twentieth century, the area that eventually came to be known as the 'East Village' was home to a large number of working-class European immigrants, largely from Eastern and Southern Europe. As a vibrant and eclectic mix of cultures, peoples and activity, the Lower East Side (as the wider area was referred to until the 1960s) was not without venues for culture and entertainment. Often cited in the development of the artistic character of the area is the Yiddish Theatre District, where a number of theatres offered Jewish immigrants the chance to enjoy Yiddish-language entertainment, including plays, comedies, operettas, dramas, vaudeville, burlesque, and musical performances.
In the 1950s, New York was affected by "White flight", particularly in its immigrant neighborhoods. This involved the large-scale migration of (mostly) White residents away from racially and ethnically diverse areas, moving instead to the newly established suburbs where government initiatives like the GI bill (allowing ex-soldiers to secure credit, often for the first time) allowed the purchase of independent housing. Many of the residences and tenements they left behind therefore began falling into disrepair, with neighborhoods like the Lower East Side developing a reputation for seediness, sex work, criminality, and drug dealing. Under these circumstances, rent prices were extremely low, which eventually led, in turn, to many creatives (artists, hippies, and beatniks) taking up residence there, taking advantage of the cheap and plentiful housing and space. At the time though most galleries were still located in the recently gentrified neighborhood of SoHo, and the East Village (a name which began to be used by The New York Times in around 1960 to differentiate the area from the slums of the Lower East Side) thus became an incubator for a number of distinct subcultural movements, communities with their own aesthetic and social sensibilities.
Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, a number of important artistic and cultural events took root in the East Village, including the founding in 1965 of the underground magazine East Village Other (which helped to promote artists like Robert Crumb), and the conversion of the Polish National Home at 19-25 St. Marks Place by Andy Warhol and filmmaker Paul Morrissey into The Electric Circus discotheque, where several bands, including the Velvet Underground, launched their careers. In 1968, promoter Bill Graham used another East Village space for shows by musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, many of whom had been more-or-less unknown until that point.
Artist and critic Gary Indiana of the Village Voice recalls that "the 'old' East Village already had a full dance card of subterranean amusements. The Bar at Second Avenue and 4th doubled as a pickup joint and giddy living room/salon for a whole community of musicians, writers, actors, and painters, some already famous, like Robert Mapplethorpe and Edward Albee, many others famous later on. John Lurie played pool there in the afternoon [...] In a strictly hedonistic way, Eileen's Reno Bar was integral to the East Village community [...] most evenings brought a steady influx of pre-op transsexuals, clueless walk-ins, bisexual drug dealers, garrulous drunks with a schizophrenic flair."
Artist Jane Dickson attributes much of the emerging East Village ethos and aesthetic to the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, where members of the drag and trans communities (notably people of colour) stood up against the victimization of the corrupt and often brutal NYPD. She explains, "There was this intense giddy energy in New York at that moment. There was a great uprising of energy from the gay baths and the gay club scene, which was really rocking. It was coming out of Stonewall and people were pushing the boundaries [...] You felt like you could do anything, people didn't care and people didn't notice. It was like we had taken over the playground."
Another rebellious subculture that emerged in New York in the early 1970s was the punk scene, which took root in clubs like the Mercer Arts Center in Greenwich Village and CBGB's in the East Village (where the Ramones had their first show in 1974). Other influential punk bands launched their careers at these venues, including Richard Hell, Mink DeVille, the New York Dolls, Television, Patti Smith Group, Blondie, and Talking Heads.
At the time, punk was not unified by a particular style, however these New York bands helped to develop what were to eventually become key attributes of the movement: rapid beats and aggressive attitudes reflected in a visual style characterized by torn clothing, leather jackets, and messy hairstyles. Punk music venues also embodied this gritty aesthetic. The bathrooms at the CBGB's became famous for their graffiti and filth, which Talking Heads frontman David Byrne described as "legendarily nasty." The Metropolitan Museum of Art recreated the CBGB bathroom as part of an exhibit on punk culture in 2013.
The Punk music scene enthralled many artists, including photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who developed a close personal relationship with Patti Smith. Andy Warhol influenced Punk and New Wave musicians by managing the Velvet Underground, creating their album cover art, and producing experimental videos to be projected against the performers during shows during the 1960s. Although not a punk band per se, this interaction between visual art and experimental rock music was incredibly influential in the development of the aesthetic and sound of the punk movement.
Warhol's Factory (which served as a studio and clubhouse) was also a place where countless creatives, including punk musicians and punk-enthusiast artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat came together to socialize. Basquiat was heavily influenced by punk culture, frequenting CBGB's, designing the album sleeve for the first record by punk-ska band The Offs in 1981 and performing as the frontman for the punk band Gray from the late 1970s to early 1980s.
Another key East Village artist, David Wojnarowicz, who blended graffiti, conceptual photography, performance, and Neo-Expressionist painting, was also highly inspired by the rule-breaking, anti-authoritarian, "Fuck You" attitude of punk culture. In 1979 he formed the post-punk band 3 Teens Kill 4 with some of his friends, He translated the punk sense of rebellion and outrage into his visual art, aggressively speaking out on behalf of those affected by the AIDS crisis.
East Village Eye
In 1979, the culture magazine East Village Eye was founded by Leonard Abrams, a comparative literature major who saw a need "to create a community in print, a free space, a liberated zone." Published monthly, it focused on documenting the experimental and interdisciplinary New York arts scene of the 1980s, as well as related subcultural movements like breakdancing, hip-hop, no-wave, new-wave, and punk music, as well as social and political issues like the rise of technology and gentrification. It was the first publication to print the term "hip-hop". Artists like Futura 2000, Josef Nechvatal, and Jane Dickson were invited to design covers and centrefold posters for the publication. Other contributors included Allen Ginsberg, Edit deAk, David Wojnarowicz, Glenn O'Brien, Cookie Mueller, Richard Hell, Lucy Lippard, and Rene Ricard.
The magazine played a central role in the development of the East Village Art scene, drawing attention to several significant artists, musicians, and clubs. Abrams explains, "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".
East Village Eye art editor Walter Robinson explains that "I wanted the art section to reflect the social reality of the Village-including bad art by losers, which is edited out of the regular art magazines. They falsify history. WE were the honest ones!" Mark Michaelson, former art director The East Village Eye, recalls, "There was no money. I think we were actually paid in drugs".
Art historian Claudia Eve Beauchesne writes that "Both in form and in content, the East Village Eye mirrored the rise and fall of the East Village art scene of the '80s. A subculture that glorifies irony, nihilism, and a perpetually festive atmosphere is bound to be ephemeral, but Leonard Abrams' newspaper managed to encapsulate more of what was unique about that particular time and place than any other print publication".
Times Square Show
One of the first significant exhibitions to put East Village artists "on the map" was the Times Square Show of 1980. It was organized by Colab (Collaborative Projects Incorporated), an artist-run group based in the Lower East Side, and Fashion Moda, an alternative gallery space in the South Bronx focusing on graffiti art. This collective show was referred to by The Village Voice (another notable East Village publication) as the "first radical art show of the '80s".
The Times Square Show was groundbreaking in that it helped to popularize and legitimize new trends in contemporary art, including neo-pop and graffiti, and did extensive work to minimize the boundary between high and low art. As curator Alhena Katsof writes, "Ideologically, Colab endeavored to create affordable art, reach audiences beyond the art world, and challenge systemic relationships between culture, money, and information," while affiliated group Fashion Moda sought to raise "critical questions about the function of art, especially in terms of race and class: Who makes art? Who decides what art is? Who decides which art gets shown?". Likewise, artist and Colab member John Ahearn asserted that "The Times Square Show would investigate how art could communicate across race, class, and gender divides and represent a complex urban identity [and thus] established a model for collaboration and a mode for addressing a broad audience that shaped the downtown art world of the early 1980s [...] There has always been a misdirected consciousness that art belongs to a certain class or intelligence. This show proves there are no classes in art, no differentiation."
The Times Square Show was held in an abandoned massage parlor in a vacant building at 41st Street and Seventh Avenue. Art historian Margo Thompson explains that the show's organizers selected this particular derelict venue because they wanted to "draw attention to buildings that languished decrepit at a time when the need for affordable housing was dire [and to] critique systems of power as articulated in the control of property". Perhaps ironically, the site is now home to a Red Lobster chain restaurant, reflecting the extensive changes to the character of the neighborhood in the intervening years. As Katsof writes, the Times Square Show "best encapsulates the questions about context, site, and sociality that artists and curators would grapple with in the decades to follow. "
The Times Square Show featured experimental painting, sculpture, music, fashion, performance, and video by over one hundred up-and-coming artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, John Ahearn, Jane Dickson, Mike Glier, Mimi Gross, David Hammons, Jenny Holzer, Joe Lewis, Candace Hill-Montgomery, Becky Howland, Joseph Nechvatal, Tom Otterness, Lee Quinones, Kenny Scharf, Kiki Smith, Bobby G., and Robin Winters. Arts journalist Elena Martinique explains that participating artists "were not thinking in macro terms at the time, not being fully aware of this singular, seminal moment in New York art history and its long-term art historical significance. Collaborative, self-curated, and self-generated, this seminal group exhibition transcended trappings of class and cultures [and] brought together people who would not necessarily come together under any other circumstance."
In 1981, as the New York real estate market was beginning to pick up in certain areas, SoHo rental prices began to become prohibitive for small and independent galleries. One day, artist Gary Indiana was walking past the stoop of his dilapidated East Village apartment building and "noticed [actress] Patti Astor rolling paint over dingy walls, in a space I had long imagined the lair of elderly former concentration-camp guards". It was here that Astor opened up the art gallery that fully inaugurated the East Village Art scene. Conceived and operated as an experimental exhibition space, it was eventually named the FUN Gallery by artist Kenny Scharf. Astor explained, "I want everyone who walks through that door to feel, yes I can make a difference here."
FUN helped to launch the careers of many of Astor's close friends, including graffiti artists like Lady Pink, Futura 2000, Kenny Scharf, Freddy Fab 5, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as underground rappers, punk musicians, and filmmakers. Astor stated in 1983 that "Our artists are coming from a different, ghetto culture, and they are also influenced by politics; they comment more on society. Their work has a new kind of beauty."
Indiana remembers that the FUN Gallery "really was fun. Patti served Lava Lamp-colored cocktails. The openings carried the sexy charge of surplus beauty in the room. The place was totally free of pretension. And there were actual black people there. (The endemic racism of the art world speaks volumes about the people who run it.) Patti simply didn't care if she made any money: The point was to zap a little soul into the prevailing rigor mortis". The vibrancy and diversity of the artists and audiences at the venue truly captured the East Village atmosphere at the time, which critic Carlo McCormick and artist Walter Robinson described in their seminal 1984 article on the scene as a "unique blend of poverty, punk rock, drugs, arson, Hell's Angels, winos, prostitutes and dilapidated housing that adds up to an adventurous avantgarde setting of considerable cachet".
The establishment and success of the FUN Gallery sparked a massive influx of galleries and clubs into the East Village (including International With Monument, Nature Morte, New Math, Piezo Electric, Gracie Mansion, ABC No Rio, Civilian Warfare, 51X, and Cash/Newhouse), many of which were artist-run, and all operating on different priorities to the more commercial SoHo art world. As artist Peter Halley explains, the unique thing about the East Village scene the 1980s was that "Artists were actually creating the dialogue, or deciding what artists themselves were showing." Likewise, painter and gallerist Rich Colicchio was quoted in 1983 as stating that, ''All of us who deal in art here are friends. We're concerned to create an alternative gallery system to 57th Street and SoHo, with a different attitude, a system not so much commercial as artistic."
Painter and art dealer Gracie Mansion (née Joanne Mayhew-Young) started her first "gallery" in 1981 in the bathroom of her apartment, which she called the "Loo Division", before moving into a more commercial space a couple of years later and launching the Gracie Mansion Gallery. In 1983 Mansion stated "I'm opposed to the SoHo galleries, showing those great big paintings that no one can afford but museums [...] We're visited by a lot of curators and gallery people from Europe. I think they find the art more exciting than the predictable things they see in SoHo". Mansion also recalls that there was a strong sense of conviviality amongst the local artists and gallery owners, who "attended each other's openings and sent curators and collectors to each other's shows". Mansion also teamed up with other female artists, curators, and gallerists to organize regular "Girls' nights out".
The Heyday of the East Village Art Scene
By 1981, the East Village's community of art galleries was beginning to emerge in the cultural consciousness as an anti-commercial, anti-authoritarian, conceptual, collaborative, and experimental alternative to the SoHo gallery scene. Art historian David Deitcher asserts that the artists of the East Village were "united in their disaffection with the parochial concerns and elitist rituals of the commercial gallery and museum scene and in their impatience with alternative spaces that paid lip service to diversity but remained unresponsive to young, punk-inspired artists like themselves".
Artist Jeff Koons stated that in the East Village, "It was really about showing exciting works. Things weren't set up as business-oriented. I went through some of the SoHo galleries, but I was never completely accepted there. And as outsiders we finally had a place where we were embraced [...] There was really a sense of trying to work on global ideas. Of really being open to the possibilities of art. I don't really think any of us ever cared about money [...] We wanted to make our work."
A number of art movements took root within the broader umbrella of East Village Art, with artists involved in the scene taking part in and being associated with Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo, Neo-Pop, and Street and Graffiti Art. As M. H. Miller (arts editor of The New York Times Style Magazine) notes, "These artists who were raised on television and Andy Warhol - were concerned with critical theory and punk rock in equal measure. Perhaps most of all, they were fascinated by what the culture's growing consumerism was doing to people's minds, and to art in particular". But this artistic renaissance brought large amounts of money into the area, leading to higher rents and new developments (just as SoHo had seen some three decades earlier). At the same time, the area became increasingly stratified, with many landlords attempted to push out residents of rent-controlled apartments by letting their residences fall into disrepair. The East Village was also a center of the AIDS and heroin epidemics, both of which seriously affected the communities of artists in the area. Art journalist Phillip Barcio asserts that "Basically, East Village was the epitome of Reagan-era America: money, celebrity, drugs, and death surrounded by regular people just struggling to survive."
Concepts and Styles
The East Village Art scene of the 1980s was not a movement with a unified style. East Village artists were instead connected by the particular sense of anti-commercial and experimental community that developed within their particular geographic location. This unique atmosphere was fostered not only by the unique individuals (artists, gallerists, musicians, club owners, etc.) that happened to live there at the time, but also by the particular social, political, and economic circumstances of the neighborhood during that decade.
Despite working in wildly different media and styles, East Village artists were united by a desire to represent and critique contemporary issues specific to their community, including racism, classism, gentrification, violence, the postmodern urban psychosocial condition, and slightly later (in the late 1980s and early 1990s), the AIDS crisis. Listed here are the most significant movements that took root and flourished within the 1980s East Village Art community. However, due to the frequent intermingling and collaboration amongst these artists, many of them could easily be classified as sitting within several of these categories at once (for instance, Jeff Koons is associated with Neo-pop and Neo-Geo, and Jean-Michel Basquiat with both Graffiti and Neo-Expressionism).
Graffiti and Street Art
Perhaps the most significant impact of the East Village Art scene was the commercial legitimization of Street and Graffiti Art, and its movement from public spaces (most commonly city streets and subway cars and posters) to galleries. Graffiti began as a vandalistic activity, with artists risking injury and arrest to create unsanctioned works on city surfaces, most commonly using spray paint, but also using other media such as wheat paste posters.
With the arrival of Patti Astor's FUN Gallery in the East Village in 1980, graffiti artists (like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lady Pink, Lee Quinones, and Fab 5 Freddy) now had a space in which to exhibit their works on canvas or other found objects. In fact, Astor had met several graffiti artists while filming Wild Style (1982), and the FUN Gallery became the first gallery to give one-person shows to graffiti artists, which had the effect of elevating the cultural standing of the work away from vandalism.
Neo-Expressionism was an artistic movement that flourished in the 1980s in SoHo and the East Village. Reacting against Conceptualism and Minimalism, Neo-Expressionists (like Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and Jean-Michel Basquiat) depicted recognizable figures, often from history or mythology, but in a crude, semi-abstracted, manner. Visually their work tended toward rough, aggressive brushstrokes and bold colors, formal characteristics that served to highlight the emotional essence, fears, and desires of the subjects.
Although there was considerable crossover between artists considered to be part of the East Village Art scene and Neo-Expressionism, the attitude of the movements to commercialization and the art market were very distinct. The criticism of Neo-Expressionist art as being overly commercial and indelibly tied to the international art market created fiction amongst some artists within the movement, with many feeling the commercial art dealers brought into the area by artists like Basquait and Schnabel marked the point at which the subversive potential of the scene was co-opted.
Neo-Geo (short for Neo-Geometric Conceptualism, also referred to as "Simulationism" by artist Peter Halley, and as "Post-Abstract Abstraction" by Modern art collector Eugene Schwartz) is characterized by geometric abstraction, and seeks to criticize industrialism, consumerism, social isolation, and the threat posed to modern society by technology.
Neo-Geo developed from the influence of Minimalism, Pop art, and Op art, as well as theoretical discourse pertaining to postmodernism, simulacra, and hyperreality (for instance, in the writings of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard). Neo-Geo artists (like Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, and Peter Nagy) interpreted Baudrillard's ideas through the use of geometric shapes, as their constructed nature reflected the constructed nature of the modern world.
Neo-Pop (also known as Post-Pop or Commodity art) was a continuation of Pop Art's fascination with consumer culture, popular culture, and advertising. In the 1980s, Neo-pop artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Takashi Murakami, borrowed the visual iconography of earlier Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Edward Ruscha while simultaneously incorporating references to newer socio-political issues. Neo-Pop would go on to become one of the most commercially successful forms of artistic expression to emerge from the East Village at this time, with many artists selling work to the newly resurgent upper-middle class of Reagan's America. Many artists within the East Village were critical of the selling of works to large commercial enterprises and their placement in corporate lobbies and boardrooms.
Later Developments - After East Village Art
The End of the East Village Art Scene
The East Village's thriving art scene dissipated as quickly as it had appeared, primarily due to the prohibitive rental prices in the newly gentrified neighborhood. By 1985, the landmark FUN Gallery closed its doors due to declining market interest in graffiti and street art. Two years later, the East Village Eye published its final issue. By 1988, almost all of the one hundred or so galleries that had emerged since 1980 had either closed or moved to SoHo or Chelsea.
Many East Village artists, like David Wojnarowicz, soon became troubled by and distrustful of the commercialization of the art scene, realizing that buyers weren't so much paying for art as they were for youth and trendiness. Some artists who achieved great commercial success (like Basquiat and Koons) were accused of "selling out", and the community began to fracture. After Basquiat's falling-out with Warhol after their failed joint exhibition Paintings at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985, one reviewer went so far as to refer to Basquiat as Warhol's "mascot".
Artist Gary Indiana argues that the East Village Art scene had begun to decline even earlier, writing that "While much neo-east village art was tepid, a fair amount of the earlier East Village's more risk-taking chutzpa had started losing steam circa 1982." The Pat Hearn Gallery, opened in 1984, strongly exemplified this newer, more "sophisticated" East Village style, showing works by artists like Philip Taaffe, Peter Schuyff, and George Condo.
Arts journalist Amy Virshup wrote in 1987 that in the previous six years, the East Village area "has gone through an astonishing change [...] and part of it - the part that was about youthful energy, naiveté, cheap art, and challenging the status quo - is dead, killed off by rising rents, by overweening ambition, and most of all, by success [...] The story of the East Village is a cautionary one: It's a tale about the way an underground art movement can be co-opted by success, and how artists and galleries can be victims of the gentrification they help bring about."
AIDS and Heroin
Indiana also points out that the AIDS epidemic quickly took its toll on East Village Art community members, including painter and curator Nicolas Moufarrege (who died in 1985), photographer Peter Hujar (1987), painter Paul Thek (1988), director Jack Smith (1989), actress Cookie Mueller (1989), photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1989), and artists Keith Haring (1990) and David Wojnarowicz (1992). The concurrent heroin epidemic affected the artistic community, claiming Jean-Michel Basquiat's life when he overdosed in his studio in 1988.
The East Village after the 1980s
The late 1980s saw a significant transformation of the East Village neighbourhood. As art journalist Phillip Barcio asserts, once "simultaneously considered the scuzziest and hippest place on the planet", the East Village had now become "safe and commercial, and just as expensive as any other part of Manhattan". Barcio continues, noting that "By the mid-1990s, the area had completely transformed, just in time to become immortalized in the Broadway play Rent as an area where struggling creative types live, love and die while trying to make it in the city that never sleeps." Lisa Spellman, director of Gallery 303, explains that "There used to be a sense of community. Now, it's just another art neighborhood".
The East Village Legacy Lives On
Although the East Village is no longer the thriving arts' hub it was in the 1980s, due primarily to soaring rents, gentrification and commercial property investment in the area. Although many of the original East Village artists passed away during the AIDS and heroin epidemics, many of the surviving artists, and particularly those who made inroads into the commercial art market, have gone on to international fame and success. Jeff Koons, for example, once held the record for the most expensive work sold by a living artist, whilst Jenny Holzer has won several prestigious awards and is ranked amongst the most influential Feminist artists (alongside women like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Louise Lawler) by art historians and academics.
Even those artists whose lives and careers were cut tragically short, like Haring and Basquiat, retain legacies in contemporary art history, with major retrospectives touring the world at some of the most prestigious major art galleries and museums. The work of both artists also have a commercial legacy through merchandise and products that display their work such as the recent Uniqlo 'Graphic Print' clothing collections. Their influence is also evident in the works of countless later artists, like Swedish-American Jonas Fisch, Thorben Nolsen of Holland, Australian Cameron Holmes, and Mexicans Jesus Trinidad Villalpando Figueroa and Bolla Hiriart.
The legacy of East Village Art has become an important one for New York City, attracting art tourists, academics and researchers to the city. In 2004-05, the New Museum in New York hosted East Village USA, an exhibition highlighting the greatest artist and works from the 1980s East Village Art scene. In October 2018, the Tompkins Square Library similarly presented "A Look Back on the East Village of the 1980s," which was "a vigorous and enthusiastically researched show focused on the creative counterculture of the surrounding neighborhood in the 1980s".