The first post-modern movement, where a community of artists made work almost exclusively influenced by their immediate environment, was in Lower Manhattan in the late 70s. Artists engaged the people and places where they lived and worked, rather than just occupying property. Though they weren’t the first to run cooperatives or paint in abandoned warehouses, they united with disenfranchised neighborhoods sociopolitically and were antagonistic to the city’s “legacy” districts and institutions that mythologized a narrative of the modern and contemporary. We see the remnants of one generations struggle for responsible citizenship in a new show in Milwaukee, as New York’s Midtown’s elitism was coming home to roost. The young cultural adversaries sought autonomy with a neo-regionalist bearing via an urban loophole and a feral vernacularism.
It was about the last time artists in the nation’s first cosmopolitan experiment could afford to live within earshot of a half dozen of the most persuasive art journals, academic periodicals, and weeklies. The company included radical young organizations that merged hardcore collectivist and punk aesthetics in collaboration with individuals scrambling for a fresh outlet for developing and propagating art. Driven by a socially conscious and arch-irascible body of collaboratives, galleries, and magazines devoted to a dramatic shift in conceptualizing studio practice, the Lower East Side sucked some of the oxygen out of a decade of mainstream art originally defined by Baldesarri, Sherman, Ruscha, Nauman, Turrell, Keifer, and Polke. Youngblood artists, musicians, and writers who outlined the latest dispute against 20thcentury art dogma, employed variants of schizo-culture, cult performance, neo-conceptualism and anti-capitalism to prevail.
In the midst of a strained antagonism between late century urbanophobia and urbanophilia city workers seemed perpetually on strike with mounting piles of trash looking more and more like Neo-Dada assemblages, gridlock constantly choking midtown traffic, and AIDS mystifying and unnerving everyone’s waking moment. There was a serious uptick in the city’s homicide rate and the country’s worst economic downturn since the depression. Developers were carving out the most promising Manhattan avenues for gentrification while their friends had the attention of the regressive new president.
Progressive institutions cherry-picked Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Salle, and Eric Fischl, from the same ashes of the 70’s sifted by scores of lesser-known artists. The rougher coterie remained dismissive of the elite art schools, art markets, and museums that had fed 112 Green Street, Artists Space, AIR, and PS1, a short time earlier.
The new artist-run spaces ABC No Rio and Fashion Moda, along with the collective Colab, turned a more acute ideological corner in the late 70’s. This was a period of transformative art that critics had originally framed as a mosaic of aesthetic deviation – sometimes referred to as eclecticism, or worse, pluralism. Although derived in many respects from the 70s co-ops and Fluxus earlier, ideological consequence had been siphoned off by academia, then by gallerists marketing increasingly de-coupled political codes. Mainstream gallerists and curators increased their hand in diluting art discourse, having been caught with their pants down in the salad days of minimalism and conceptualism. Now that younger artists in the East Village were doubling down on cultural debate, mixing literary criticism, cultural theory, and anthropology with music and politics, venues were established that welcomed alternative media, critical theory, and re-definitions of audience. By the end of the decade increasing numbers of artists and writers were drawn to co-ops, artist-run spaces and journals including those in Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee, that didn’t require artwork to be authorial or substantially canonical.
No wonder that the celebrated “Art Worker’s Coalition” and “Heresies” shaped conscience of Lucy Lippard took the developing 80’s generation seriously in an introduction to Alan Moore’s tome – “ABC No Rio Dinero.” She states: “I haven’t always felt No Rio lived up to its early promise. But it has held out for values that most artists seem to be forgetting, and in doing so has made some pretty important contributions to the gradual validation of an art that isn’t afraid of social change or so-called mass culture.”
Lippard continues: “Trying to work with the community (often a euphemism for a neighborhood whose communities are being rent asunder by all kinds of internal and external catastrophes), crossing cultural and racial lines whenever possible, the No Rio artists have tried to do something the artworld can’t even imagine – for all its talk of Breakthroughs and Boundary Crossings. None of these things happen in the hothouse atmosphere further west and north, and there’s at least a chance they will happen on Rivington Street.” “…thanks to some of the No Rio stalwarts among others, a lot of artists have begun to take for granted that that you can integrate your art with your politics without screwing up either one. And the more granted it becomes, the better the politics and the better the art becomes.”
Her words fairly describe the career of Alan W. Moore, art historian, publisher, artist, organizer, and cultural worker who has submitted, with curator Michael Flanagan, a representation of artists’ work of that time, many of which were feted in “The Real Estate Show” and “The Times Square Show,” the latter described by former “Art In America” critic Jeffrey Deitch as “a month-long party, business enterprise, and loosely curated exhibition of art, film, fashion and exotica.”
Over 100 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, posters, small sculptures, and memorabilia make up Moore’s personal collection, and that of his parents, showing in the Layton Art Gallery at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design under the title “Friends, Neighbors & Distant Comrades: An Exhibition of Late 20th Century NYC Bohemia.” The collection includes Walter Robinson, Keith Haring, John Ahearn, Cara Perlman, Conrad Vogel, Rick Prol, Mark Kostabi, Phillip Pocock, Christi Rupp, Rebecca Howland, Judy Rifka, Richard Bosman, Martin Wong, and Robert Goldman, aka Bobby G., among many others.
This activist assembly of artists, writers, and squatters makes clear that the differences between dominant art trends before and after the 80s remain the subjects and sites of production. Before the advent of artist-run spaces, defining subjects tended to be work that responded positively or de-constructively to the Modernist canon. The late 70s and 80s, however, opened the work up not so much to eclecticism but the baring of nearly every aspect of one’s life as an artist, merging research and discipline with cognizance of all things cultural, from a post-Beat, street smart, hip-hop influenced, feminist, gay, urban activism where young artists thrived collaboratively de-centered.
What’s noteworthy about this exhibition is that it stirs the waters about the identity and influence of art in the East Village, drawing comparisons to DIY culture and gender and race discourse relevant to today. We get a chance to see a more erratic distribution of burgeoning talent and a provocative, occasionally unbalanced, stream-of-art consciousness aside artists like Kiki Smith, Joseph Nechvatal, Jane Dickson, and Tom Otterness, who each seem more innovative and contemplative. However, most artists who eventually achieve the most successful careers don’t appear much more lucid or insightful than the lesser-known artists. Some of the most compelling works are from artists I’m unfamiliar with, and it’s to Moore’s strength that we see the diversity of his collection, with its capacity and liabilities, rather than an ultra-curated grouping of art that conforms to one’s expectations about Bohemia. Consequently, the work serves as an excellent cross-section of emerging 80’s artists and ideas whose content and experimentation formed a carnivalesque, freestyle, cusp-dwelling alternative to the new world order.
“Friends, Neighbors & Distant Comrades: An Exhibition of Late 20th Century NYC Bohemia.” runs through September 15.
Artist Talk – Robert Goldman (Bobby G) and Andrea Callard, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023 | 6 p.m.
MIAD Community Hub, Room 160, 273 E Erie St., Milwaukee, WI
Performance by Jack Waters and Peter Cramer
Thursday, September 14, 2023 | 11 a.m. MIAD Union Auditorium, 273 E Erie St., Milwaukee, WI
Closing Reception and Lecture
Friday, September 15, 2023
5 – 6:30 p.m. | Alan Moore and Dr. Mysoon Rizk lecture
6:30 – 8:30 p.m. | Closing Reception
Frederick Layton, 273 E Erie St., Milwaukee, WI