Basquiat, Scharf, Unhinged Bohemians Spray-Paint Manhattan
13-01-06 Mr X
By Carly Berwick
The late 1970s and early '80s roar back to life in ``The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984,'' a new exhibition at New York University's Grey Art Gallery of spray-painted vases, torn T-shirts, and Day-Glo paintings by more than 200 artists who ran around with handheld cameras, growled into microphones and painted on walls.
The city was nearly bankrupt, buildings were crumbling and crime rates were high. Maybe that all helped make for rule- breaking art and daredevil lifestyles.
The ferment of the day bubbles up all over the show. A video of Madonna singing ``Like a Virgin'' at the Paradise Garage in 1984 plays behind two cartoon paintings by Kenny Scharf. Nearby is an orange cotton minidress for actress Patti Astor, decorated with graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab Five Freddy, Scharf and three others. Who would imagine it would take so many to properly deface a scrap of fabric?
For young artists in Brooklyn, Berlin and Los Angeles, the show reaffirms the truism that everything's been done before -- and with less money. Trends of today such as glitter paintings, junk art, kitsch painting, unhinged satirical performances -- all are here. Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt's foil origami ``Rat and Miscellaneous Objects'' (1980) and David Hammons's ``Elephant Dung Sculpture'' (1983), a painted dung ball, would fit seamlessly into a group show today.
Euphoria and Outrage
Next to the anarchic euphoria, however, was serious outrage at ongoing poverty, homelessness, disease, crime. ``Reagan Speaks for Himself,'' Sue Coe's 1984 painting of the former president as a bloated swine, captures the anger of downtown dwellers at his failure to speak about the terrifying new disease identified as AIDS.
Downtown was an attitude as much as a place, exemplified by Nan Goldin's portraits of her friends miserably partying hard or punk musician Richard Hell's brutally honest journal, in which he notes a ``feeling of my profoundly total ultimate inadequacy as a human.''
Basquiat turned out to be the genius of the bunch. He insinuated anger into playful street poetry. His 1983 painting ``No Hay Crimen (de Classe)'' features the words above a drawing of a skull, childish and menacing at once. Basquiat embedded himself in the city, scrawling his signature crowns and crocodiles on East Village walls, on flyers for friends' performances and on Patti Astor's dress.
Not all of the works are the best examples of an artist's production at the time. Painter David Salle is represented with a minor work on paper, for instance, and Gordon Matta-Clark's monumental slicing up of Pier 52 on the Hudson is shown in a photograph rather than a film (which does exist). But the lack of imposing masterpieces makes the show feel as scrappy as the era. Many of the performances or site-specific installations persist only in photographs, drawings and videos.
The videos on view, a noisy bunch, serve as some of the clearest-eyed guides to the era. Personal favorites are Dara Birnbaum's ``Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman'' (1978- 79), select outtakes from the TV program with Lynda Carter saving the world in a bustier and high-heeled boots, and Ann Magnuson's ``Made for TV'' (1984), in which she plays, in quick succession, chirpy female archetypes of the day: a morning show host, an aerobics instructor, a game show contestant and a televangelist's wife. Both show that feminists could be funny, too.
There are plenty of films available for rental that also capture the spirit of the recent past. There's Martin Scorsese's ``After Hours,'' painter Julian Schnabel's feature film ``Basquiat'' or writer Glenn O'Brien's lovingly amateurish ``Downtown 81,'' starring the real Basquiat as a penniless artist evicted from his apartment. He spends the day roaming the desolate streets of the Lower East Side and the night crashing the clubs du jour. Nearly plotless, the squalid little video features eye-opening footage of burnt-out buildings where million-dollar condos now stand and of wildly inventive bands with cult followings, such as DNA, who today are too obscure even for a stray song on iTunes.
The addled bohemians of downtown started to sober up as artists began to die from drugs and AIDS. The show's cutoff date of 1984 also coincides with Reagan's re-election and the emergence of an art market for New York's latest avant-garde. That year, Basquiat's paintings sold at Mary Boone's gallery for $20,000. (Today, his auction record is $5.5 million.) Art was a profession, and it was time to get down to business.
``The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984'' is at New York University's Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, and Fales Library, on the third floor of Bobst Library at 70 Washington Square South, through April 1. A related exhibition, ``Anarchy to Influence: Design in New York, 1974- 1984,'' is at Parsons, the New School for Design, at 66 Fifth Avenue.
For more information, see http://www.nyu.edu/greyart/exhibits/downtown/dthome.htm
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