Aug 18, 2023, 05:57AM

The Wild Wild East

On the edge of yesterday, when outlaw artists roamed New York City.

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Caption: Harmony Korine 1999. Photograph by Michael Gentile. 

A culture of jaded-by-nature, independent thinkers in Manhattan during the 1980s and 1990s were known to congregate on the Lower East Side. The era produced a wide range of poetry, music, cinema and visual arts. An unknown number of artists flourished amid a hub of activity that embodied experimentation and changed the art world. According to real estate firm Douglas Elliman, the average monthly apartment rent in Manhattan is currently $5588. If you were fortunate during the heyday, you could find a $700 a month, fifth-floor walk-up tenement with a bathtub in the kitchen on Essex Street.

Living in the present was necessary. Part of the downtown lifestyle might entail mingling with drunks at the Mars Bar where a filthy, cracked toilet stood out like the Stanley Cup trophy. Some looked for dope. Like pilgrims seeking relics, feverish customers cruised Alphabet City. For those who knew their A, B, C, and Ds, the place was thriving with too much junkie business. A look behind the curtain is Paul Morrissey’s 1984 film Mixed Blood set in the combat zone. Street crime and narcotic overdoses never play fair.

Most can agree on the reasons for the demise listed on bohemian Manhattan’s eviction notice—death, moving away, cost of living, the internet, monolithic gentrification, HIV, and drug abuse, all share blame for ending the way the other half lived.

As often the case, the creative evocation found in the power of making art was responsible for decisions that were nothing short of visionary. For instance, Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, and David Wojnarowicz represented outsider film pioneers in the Cinema of Transgression movement. As is frequently the case, evaluating a scene is a challenge. There are too many noteworthy voices given the vast cultural landscape, I’ll cherry-pick a little basket.

Missing Foundation was an industrial noise, anarchist/political band. “The Party's Over” graffiti logo, an upside-down martini glass and “1988-1933,” became a familiar anti-yuppie symbol of dissent seen on downtown walls affiliated with Peter Missing’s band. Tompkins Square Park is a place of rich community history. The band attracted FBI, NYPD and national attention under Mayor Koch’s administration because of their connection to Tompkins Square Park riot in August 1988. Documentarian, photographer and videographer Clayton Patterson recorded the event.

There’s a lot to be said about the Rivington School Sculpture Garden, a guerilla affair hosted in a onetime, deserted lot at Forsyth and Rivington Sts. This ad-hoc collection of scrap metal sculptures and welding experiments christened an area where one could walk around and interact with the artists who hung out there. The underground Garden of Eden was eventually bulldozed. If you were hungry, El Sombrero on Ludlow St. served standard Mexican cuisine. Nearby, a collective for art and activism, ABC No Rio is currently in exile from Rivington St.

Then there was award-winning illustrator J. D. King, a former guitarist for The Coachmen, who mentioned the multi-talented Dame Darcy, author of the delectable, neo-Victorian comic book Meat Cake. During my time art directing New York Press, Darcy did a stunning cartwheel across the entire Puck Building ballroom floor at a Press party. King and Darcy’s artwork were included in the newspaper’s pages, along with a plethora of other artists and cartoonists who contributed weekly, helping shape the framework of active downtown.

Around Cooper Union at St. Marks Place, you’d find plenty of retail for clothing, printed matter, music and videos. One might step down into See Here’s 7th St. basement storefront hunting zines. Or you could step up into a wrought iron encased, marble staircase on 8th St. to Sounds, sifting through bins of vinyl and CDs. Close by was Mondo Kim’s and St. Mark’s Comics. The Poetry Project continues to support an annual New Year’s Day marathon reading. At St. Mark’s Church, hundreds of people assemble to hear readers including Patti Smith and Richard Hell to engage in social discourse.

And just like that, like aliens coming out of a spaceship, we were in “chill” and distinct, avant-garde performance and art spaces. PS122 on 9th St. is where Ned Vizzini held and hosted readings. A yellow and red canvas sign hanging above the entrance of the Knitting Factory on Houston St., announced a tiny venue in the Puck Building shadows. “Move aside, and let the man go through.” Musician and writer M. Doughty formerly worked the door prior to Soul Coughing’s “Super Bon Bon.” The venue got a lot in and was known for its eclectic and progressive taste in music and word.

And the notorious Bowery. Under Michael Gira’s direction, the Swans delivered a faultless performance at CBGB’s. During one dark performance, the audience was treated to an unparalleled dissection of sound. I was standing next to six-foot-tall speakers when a constant, deafening sonic boom nearly blew my clothing off. It undoubtedly had an impact. Silently, my ears vibrated like a smoldering tuning fork for three days afterwards. And picture this, right next door at CB’s 313 Gallery, a show of artwork by 25 New York Press illustrators including Danny Hellman, Fly, F. Red Harper, Sara Schwartz, and M. Wartella to name a few.

On skid row, 222 Bowery was surrounded by drug addicts and sleeping bums. William S. Burroughs lived there in “The Bunker,” a former YMCA locker room. The dynamic poet John Giorno, also in the same building, produced Dial-A-Poem, Giorno Poetry Systems LPs and silkscreened poems. Giorno kissed Burroughs in his coffin.

At one point, Harmony Korine was also on the Bowery. Korine laid down his skateboard to make paintings, drawings and movies. The screenwriter for Kids worked with director/photographer Larry Clark; the film that launched his, Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny’s careers. Korine’s a risk taker who knows how to tap into dysfunctionality with a nihilistic vision.

Seeing Gummo, his directorial debut, the first day it was released with New York Press writer Adam Heimlich at the Angelika movie theater, I quickly realized his films are earnest and unpretentious. Heimlich interviewed Korine in 1999: “It seems like my films are so divisive no matter what. No matter how many people like it, just as many I’m sure, will hate it. With Julien Donkey-Boy I don’t really see what there is to lash about it. There’s no real argument about shock for shock’s sake. Even though, I was surprised in Toronto that there were people who were offended by the way I show people… Or maybe it’s that if you film something that someone considers grotesque in a beautiful way it’s upsetting or vice versa—if you film something that’s beautiful in an ugly way, it’s kinda confusing to certain people.” Several decades later, this still holds true.

In the meantime, I’ve learned that today’s intended market for art purchases is not pickleball players who drive Range Rovers vacationing at an Airbnb on a Massachusetts beach. They do however, represent the lifestyles of newcomers currently residing in New York City. Do we have evidence to support this? The correct answer is yes.


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