The following texts are adapted from gallery labels by Philip Gefter, guest curator of the exhibition.
A non-profit arts organization founded in 1974, Creative Time promotes and supports public art. Utilizing unconventional and often overlooked spaces in New York City and elsewhere, Creative Time commissions artists to create installations and artworks that trigger dynamic conversations between site, audience, and context. Between 1978 and 1985, it sponsored Art on the Beach, an annual summer exhibition held outdoors on the sandy dunes of a landfill bank of the Hudson River, the future location of Battery Park City. Drawing inspiration from the Earthworks movement, which saw artists such as Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson making site-specific works from the natural landscape, Art on the Beach provided a temporary public venue for site-specific installations that were sculptural, architectural, and theatrical. Artists often collaborated across disciplines: performance artists, for example, employed art installations as their stages. Many used everyday objects such as refrigerators and mirrors to create sculptural monuments or construct architectural environments against the Manhattan skyline. This wide-ranging experimentation was invariably steeped in humor. Its spirit of improvisation and irreverence consistently reflected the transitional nature of its urban site, and is conjured up in the exhibition’s (and organization’s) very name.
Using as their set the subterranean, futuristic installation Vacation Homes of the Future by sculptor Jody Culkin and engineer Guy Nordenson, the actors in Uwe Mengel’s spy thrillerMushrooms performed while buried neck-deep in the landfill sand. A participatory drama, Mushrooms prompted audience members to move among the brightly colored earthquake-resistant “vacation homes” while questioning the actors in order to uncover the plot. Depending on the audience’s involvement, the piece, which had no distinct beginning or end, “could last five, ten, twenty, or a hundred and twenty minutes.”
Featuring a billboard-sized portrait of Ronald Reagan, sculptor Dennis Adams and architect Nicholas Goldsmith’s A Podium for Dissent served as a platform for performance artist Ann Magnuson’s satire. Dropped by a helicopter into the installation, Magnuson performed as a variety of characters from popular media, including a singing televangelist.
In 1987 Creative Time’s Art on the Beach series moved from the Hudson River landfill to a six-acre lot in Hunter’s Point, Queens, which was donated by the New York and New Jersey Port Authority. With its view of Manhattan from across the East River, the new location provided a stimulus for many of the participating artists. For example, Craig Konyk and Stephen Laub’s Bridge, fabricated from a single sheet of steel, offered a compelling rendition of the Midtown skyline, with which it converged in the view from Hunter’s Point.
Born in New York, photographer Robert Alexander (1943-1989) was an assiduous chronicler of the Downtown avant-garde dance
and theater worlds in the late 1970s and early ’80s. His photographs of rehearsals and staged events were featured regularly in the Soho Weekly News. Often illuminating and at times lyrical, his documentation of the post-modern dance movement and its original choreographers–frequently captured in the process of working with dancers–includes Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer.
Alexander studied film as well as photography, and motion remains a key visual element in his work. In still photographs, he explored movement through multiple images of the same dance piece, for instance, presenting his documentation in diptychs and triptychs, or employing a filmstrip format for consecutive views.
In addition to documenting performances, Alexander made playful portraits, self-portraits, and street photographs that also reflect his artistic curiosity and visual sensitivity. His work exemplifies the burst of creative energy that appeared at the precise moment when the medium of photography was garnering unprecedented art-world respect.
Jimmy De Sana
When Jimmy De Sana (1950-1990) moved to New York City in 1973, he had already completed 101 Nudes, a series of black-and-white photographs of naked men and women taken in and around his suburban home in Atlanta. Departing from classical representa-tions of the human figure, his pictures of friends and acquaintances possess the informal snapshot aesthetic typical of photography of the period. This matter-of-fact nudity in the context of a middle-class living room captures the inchoate eroticism of adolescence, recalling Larry Clark’s series Teenage Lust. At the same time, De Sana’s subjects’ posed spontaneity resembles that in film stills from Warhol’sChelsea Girls. 101 Nudes anticipates De Sana’s next body of work, Submission, a series of more calculated photographs made in New York in the late 1970s and published as a book with an introduction by William Burroughs. In these pictures, he explored the nude figure and sadomasochism with hyperbole and wit, driven by his own erotic desire and rendered in a kind of punk surrealism.
De Sana contributed regularly to the Soho Weekly News, the East Village Eye, and Filemagazine. He shot album covers for Downtown bands and made portraits of Downtown musical luminaries, as well as the Underground’s elder statesmen, including William Burroughs, Kenneth Anger, and Jack Smith. He was a contemporary of Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz and, just as their lives were cut short, De Sana died of complications from AIDS in 1990.
The avant-garde theater company Mabou Mines was founded in 1970 by JoAnne Akalaitis, Lee Breuer, Philip Glass, Ruth Maleczech, and David Warrilow. A collabora-tive in which all members serve as co-artistic directors, it has welcomed other actor/writer/ directors into the company over the years; each member participates at various times in every aspect of production. The name Mabou Mines derives from a mining town in Novia Scotia, where members of the group settled for a short time to explore the ideas that would establish their new company.
Known for its experimental and minimalist theater pieces, Mabou Mines traces its roots to the conceptual art world as much as to performance. One of its first presentations in New York–written by Lee Breuer, with music by Philip Glass–took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art. As a fledgling company in the 1970s, it mounted perfor-mances in galleries and alternative spaces as well as theaters, and served for a time as the resident company at La Mama and the Public Theater–whose director Joseph Papp dubbed Mabou Mines his “black sheep.”
In addition to presenting many original productions written by its members, as well as by other playwrights, artists, and musicians, Mabou Mines is considered one of the foremost interpreters of Samuel Beckett’s work. The company has produced six world premiers of texts by Beckett that were not originally intended for the theater.
Fred W. McDarrah
The first gay pride march in the United States–organized jointly by Craig Rodwell, who owned the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, and two groups, Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance–made its debut on June 28, 1970. Approximately 2,000 people marched from Christopher Street to Central Park, where thousands more filled the Sheep Meadow for a Gay Be-In. It spawned similar parades in cities throughout the United States and around the world. Initially called the Christopher Street Liberation Day march, this annual event is known today as the Gay Pride Parade.
Photographer Fred W. McDarrah (1926-2007) documented the march every year from its inception. The first staff photographer for theVillage Voice, he served as picture editor from the mid-1950s. He chronicled Beat Generation poets and writers; the folk musicians who gathered around Washington Square in the early 1960s, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez; Vietnam War demonstrations and anti-AIDS rallies; and every other social protest that took place Downtown–and sometimes Uptown, too. His body of work arguably forms one of the most comprehensive archives of Downtown cultural and political activities and luminaries over the last half century.
The photographs on view here are culled from McDarrah’s invaluable chronicle of social protest and public celebration. His record of the gay pride march over forty years fittingly demonstrates how the photojournalistic record can achieve a practical and visceral form of visual history.
Photography lends itself to visual experimentation. In the 1960s, the medium was increasingly viewed as a viable form for creative expression. Aspiring artists found it to be accessible, mutable, and “cool,” and for the first time, art schools began creating photography programs within their fine-art curricula. Simultaneously, curators and scholars began to establish a canon for the history of photography, inspiring young artists either to emulate those visual precedents, or actively to challenge them.
The pictures on view in this Photo Gallery reflect the push- and-pull between serious formal considerations in photographic art making and the earnest imitation engaged in by many young artists in the process of finding their own voices. A number are steeped in irony–an evolving undercurrent in Downtown cultural life that is reflected in much art making of the time.
Some of these photographs were made as documents; others as works of art. Found randomly interspersed among the artists’ and organizations’ papers in the Downtown Collection at Fales, the works on view here display a surprisingly wide range of both documentary approaches and visual experimentation. Together, they constitute evidence of an important phase in the evolution of photography.
The history of photographic portraiture is written on notable subjects. In 19th-century France, Nadar (Gaspard-Felix Tournachon) photo-graphed the influential artists, writers, and poets of his era. At the same time, in England, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed her prominent friends and acquaintances. In the early 20th century, Berenice Abbott, working with Man Ray, portrayed the Paris avant-garde. And in the last half-century, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn vied for supremacy as the signature portrait photographer of the era, with rosters of illustrious subjects.
This portrait gallery comprises a pantheon of Downtown arts and letters. Drawn from the papers of a variety of artists, writers, and arts organizations, the range of subjects, circumstances, and photographic styles on view here reflects the range of historically important cultural figures who lived and worked Downtown. For the most part, these depictions of accomplished individuals were made with an eye to authenticity of subject rather than artistic intentions. Although they are not always fully resolved works of art, they exemplify a photographic approach that departs from studio formality–which became characteristic of portrait photography in the 1960s.
A native of Baltimore, Cookie Mueller starred in many of John Waters’s early films. With her hilarious East Village Eye column, “Ask Dr. Mueller,” and her articles on art and the Downtown scene for Details, she was a fixture on the Downtown literary scene. Kate Simon took this photograph in 1989, the year Mueller died of AIDS-related illnesses. A favorite subject of many photographers, including Nan Goldin, Mueller was, according to Waters, “a writer, a mother, an outlaw, a fashion designer, a go-go dancer, a witch-doctor, an art-hag and above all, a goddess.”
Moving to New York in 1979, Carlo McCormick worked at several popular clubs, including Club 57 and the Pyramid Club, and wrote for the magazine East Village Eye, which documented the Downtown scene. Today he is widely considered its leading cultural critic and historian. In addition to serving as senior editor at Paper magazine, McCormick was lead curator for The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene 1974–1985, an exhibition organized by New York University’s Grey Gallery and Fales Library in 2006.
Richard Foreman (born 1937) founded the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in 1968 with the mission of “stripping the theater bare of everything but the singular and essential impulse to stage the static tension of interpersonal relations in space.” As its only artistic director, Foreman has written over fifty works produced by the company.
A pioneer of avant-garde performance, Foreman took his early cues from the filmmaker/performance artist Jack Smith and the musician LaMonte Young. He veered away from straight narrative in favor of experiential and perceptual qualities resulting from the dynamic interplay between actors and audience. His multi-disciplinary notion of “total theater” incorporates not only the traditional elements of performance, music, and stage set recast in unconventional forms, but also philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literature.
Between 1968 and 1992 the company was itinerant, performing in a variety of theaters Downtown, from the Performing Garage to
the Kitchen, the Public Theater, Film-Makers Cinematheque on Wooster Street, and the Theater for the New City. At times, they presented street theater. Since 1992 they
have made their home at St. Mark’s Church
The photographic documentation of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater’s performances presented here captures the spirit of experimentation not only in the theater’s productions but also in the use of the photographic medium. Some of the images reference 19th- century stereocards, which were placed in a stereoscope to render two-dimensional images in three dimensions. Such documentation lends the performances the look of stills from a film made by Weimar culture decadents.
Although it premiered in Rotterdam, The Birth of the Poet is a quintessential collaboration between Downtown artists. Richard Foreman and Kathy Acker conceived the “opera” as a series of fragmentary vignettes set alternately in post-apocalyptic New York, the late Roman Empire, and contemporary Iran. Foreman’s Brechtian stage directions, which call for workers to move sets around during the performance, aimed to subvert the opera’s epic scope. Peter Gordon, an experimental musician who played with the Love of Life Orchestra, produced a complex score of tape-recorded drones and atonal progressions, while the painter David Salle designed spectacular set and costumes.
Richard Hell (born Richard Meyers in 1949) is one of the progenitors of punk rock. This rapid, hard-edged, decidedly urban music grew out of garage rock and emerged in reaction to mainstream rock-and-roll. In 1974 Hell, along with his high-school friend Tom Verlaine (née Miller), started the band Television. Among the first bands to perform at CBGB’s, the legendary music club on the Bowery, Television was instrumental in setting off the wave of punk-rock bands that performed there, including the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group. After a year Hell left Television and, in 1976, formed Richard Hell and the Voidoids. In 1977 the group released the album Blank Generation,whose title track is one of the most influential punk songs of that era.
Today Hell is an established author and poet. He has published two novels, Go Now andGodlike. The photographic documentation of his punk-rock heyday captures a look and attitude typical of Downtown nightlife scenesters of the 1970s and ’80s. With his spiked hair, torn shirts held together with safety pins, and sunglasses worn day and night, Richard Hell created a memorable punk persona. The photographs on view here also reveal his transition from punk rocker to family man. Viewed together, this collection of images forms a complex portrait of an individual responding to life’s changes over the course
of many years.
Best known for his photo-based silkscreen paintings and avant-garde films, Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was also a prolific photographer. Functioning as time capsules, his Polaroid portraits and 35mm snapshots document his life in a continuous stream of parties, art openings, and trips to Long Island beaches. Armed with his ubiquitous cameras, Warhol took thousands of pictures of the wealthy, famous, and beautiful people who turned up on his packed social calendar.
Some of the faces seen here were instantly recognizable at the time–socialite fashion designer Carolina Herrera, rock muse Bianca Jagger, dancer Jack Soto, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland–while others remain anonymous. Younger artists and musicians from the Downtown scene, including Keith Haring, Blondie, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, also posed for Warhol, as his studio became the focal point for an increasingly diverse New York art world.
Rarely exhibited, Warhol’s photographs reveal much about his working process. Established under the terms of his will, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts–the largest single artist foundation in the United States–aims to further the study of his work in photography.
Since 2007, through the Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program, the Foundation has donated nearly 30,000 original works by Warhol to university art galleries around the country. On view here is a selection from those given to the New York University.
David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) worked in a variety of mediums–collage, paint, photo-graphy, film, installation, and performance. His personal brand of surrealism belongs to the East Village gay avant-garde. The series Rimbaud in New York (1978-79), his first serious body of work, comprises twenty-four black-and-white photographs of friends holding up a mask of the poet Arthur Rimbaud in a variety of underground settings in New York City.
The similarities between Rimbaud’s life and Wojnarowicz’s are striking: They lived exactly a century apart and both died in their late 30s; each came from a broken home with abusive parents; both fled to the big city–Rimbaud to Paris, Wojnarowicz to New York; both were gay, and each found a surrogate father in the form of an older lover–Paul Verlaine for Rimbaud, Peter Hujar for Wojnarowicz. In addition to his work as an artist–which has become more widely recognized over the years–Wojnarowicz was a political activist in the midst of the AIDS crisis, the disease that would eventually take his life.
The male body is a persistent subject in Wojnarowicz’s work, one he explored in terms of representation as well as symbolism and myth. “I generally will place many photographs together or print them one inside the other in order to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness,” Wojnarowicz wrote in 1990. In several pictures shown here, Wojnarowicz photographed the artist Peter Hujar moments after he died of complications from AIDS. These works contain multiple layers of meaning–stark witness to the death of a lover, elegiac homage to a significant artist, unflinching rage in the face of another AIDS death. Simultaneously personal, artistic, and political, Wojnarowicz’s free-floating sentence resonates across the decades.
Using a stolen 35mm camera, David Wojnarowicz photographed anonymous figures posing in a mask of the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud. According to Wojnarowicz, he was “playing with ideas of compression of ‘historical time and activity’ and fusing the French poet’s identity with modern New York urban activities, mostly illegal in nature.” From Times Square to the abandoned Hudson River piers, the Rimbaud figure’s wanderings mirrored Wojnarowicz’s own transient life in the city. Published in the Soho Weekly News in June 1980, this series marks Wojnarowicz’s first serious effort in photography and his first publicly exhibited artwork.