Here’s a fascinating article that I came across while browsing the net. I subscribe to a bunch of daily newspapers to keep my brain active.
By MARTHA SCHWENDENER
What would the proverbial alien, beamed into the Grey Art Gallery for a viewing of “Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives, 1961-1991,” discern about New York toward the end of the last millennium? Maybe this: That it was very gritty, very gay and very Caucasian.
Organized by Philip Gefter, a former picture editor for The New York Times, the exhibition includes more than 300 photographs and serves as a kind of sequel to “The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984” from 2006. Like that display, this one reminds us what the arts scene in the East Village, SoHo and TriBeCa was like at the height of the AIDS epidemic, before gentrification and before the downtown ethos and aesthetic were packaged into family viewing spectacles like “Rent” or those by Blue Man Group.
This was the downtown of experimental art, music, film, theater and dance — often mashed up and delivered simultaneously. An idea of how it was received might be gleaned from a quotation from a review by the New York Times critic Frank Rich printed on a wall label next to a photograph documenting a 1984 performance of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s “Through the Leaves,” by the avant-garde company Mabou Mines. The work “is not pleasant,” he wrote, “but it sticks like a splinter in the mind.”
There are plenty of splinters here. A series of photographs by David Wojnarowicz documents the death of his mentor and lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, from AIDS in a hospital; nearby is a matter-of-fact letter to Hujar from his doctor describing his dire medical condition. “Heroin,” a three-minute movie shot in 1981 on Super 8 film, shows Wojnarowicz’s semicomatose friends crashed out in various lofts and bathrooms. The film wasn’t made to celebrate drug use, but out of concern for the rampant addiction the artist witnessed around him.
New York’s grittiness was compared frequently to that of 19th-century Paris, with its bohemians afflicted by poverty and consumption, and its reverence for poetry, a form that has been largely eclipsed in subsequent decades. There are portraits of real poets, like David Trinidad, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and John Giorno, and fake ones: Tom Verlaine dressed up as Theresa Stern, a fictive poet invented by Mr. Verlaine and Richard Hell, founders of the band Television (foreshadowing a more recent art world fictional character, Reena Spaulings).
Wojnarowicz’s series “Rimbaud in New York” features young men posing in diners or decrepit interiors, each wearing a mask with the image of the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud, while a Jimmy De Sana photo captures Andy Warhol hanging out with the fashion designer Halston’s Colombian boyfriend, who went by the name Victor Hugo.
Poetry was also featured as a tragic-romantic motif in projects like Kathy Acker and Richard Foreman’s opera “The Birth of the Poet” from 1984 or a video of John Kelly singing “Love of a Poet,” based on a Robert Shumann song cycle from the 1840s.
Women aren’t particularly well represented — except as perfunctory documentarians of the scene (the Fales Library, New York University’s rare-book and manuscript collection, has actually acknowledged this weakness in the archives) — and neither are minorities. There are portraits of the punk-folk priestess Patti Smith, the punk-appropriation author Ms. Acker and the downtown dance pioneer Trisha Brown, as well as a video of Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy” from 1964, an absurdist Dionysian performance in which nearly nude participants rub themselves with paint, plastic and raw meat.
And despite the extraordinary influence of black and Hispanic art forms, like graffiti and hip-hop — noted cursorily in ephemera-filled vitrines and in Polaroids by Martin Wong — one of the few images of a black man is Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1983 photograph of the muscle-ripped Derrick Cross. You can see why images like this — taken from behind, with his head out of the frame — published in “The Black Book” (1986), incensed artists like Glenn Ligon, whose “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” (1991-93), took Mapplethorpe to task for his objectification and sexual stereotyping of black men.
Also included in “Downtown Pix” are a couple of portraits of Alvin Ailey taken by Robert Alexander, a photographer for SoHo Weekly News, who documented dance.
You wonder how much the show is a product of Mr. Gefter’s curatorial vision and how much he was limited by the Fales Archives, even though it holds more than 5,000 images. There is a strong black-and-white, art-photography flavor to the show; at times it feels anachronistic for a period when artists were making the switch to color photography. Mr. Gefter is also the author of “Photography After Frank” (2009), a collection of writings whose title nods to Robert Frank, whose artfully bleak and blurry images serve almost like a template for the show’s aesthetic.
A splash of color comes in a grid of 42 snapshots made by Mr. Trinidad, the poet, who is an avid collector of Barbie paraphernalia. Mr. Trinidad photographed his dolls in their plastic habitats, creating a tongue-in-cheek archive that also calls to mind Laurie Simmons’s more self-consciously arty photographs. Accompanying the photos is a sestina by Mr. Trinidad called “Playing With Dolls,” in which his mother defends his doll habit (“He’s a creative boy”), and his father calls him a sissy.
A few other decisions about how to present downtown art are interesting, like the one to marginalize Warhol, who gets his own section of Polaroids in the basement. Likewise, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who have overwhelmed many downtown ’80s histories, are virtually absent.
There are some amazing inclusions, however, like the film “Beehive” from 1985, a delirious pastiche that feels like a postmodern mix of Looney Tunes, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and Balanchine. Juxtaposed with a black-and-white video of a 1972 performance by Grand Union, an Yvonne Rainer offshoot, you get the full range of downtown’s development, from serious, hermetic and formalist to zany, hallucinogenic and ironic.
Like “The Downtown Show” or “The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, this exhibition is essentially another preliminary history of art in the ’70s and ’80s. The Fales Library has become the biggest repository of downtown archives, which is paradoxical, since New York University is often seen as the biggest institutional gentrifier of the East Village and its environs. What that means, however, is that “Downtown Pix” is probably just one iteration of a show and a history that will continue to be presented, tweaked and re-presented over time.
“Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives, 1961-1991” continues through April 3 at the Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village; (212) 998-6780, nyu.edu/greyart.