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Baird Jones,
Mark Kostabi and the East Village Scene, 1983-1987

With Jack Bankowsky

With (from left) Rick Prol, Martin Wong and Daze

With Cindy Sherman

Book Report
by Walter Robinson

Baird Jones, Mark Kostabi and the East Village Scene, 1983-1987 (144 pp, Matteo Editore)

If you ever wondered what kind of history a gossip columnist might write, the profusely illustrated new paperback, Mark Kostabi and the East Village Scene, 1983-1987, provides an answer. Shallow, error-ridden and formless, a clip-job padded with pictures, this curious book is nevertheless a real gift to those who took part in the extended party that was the East Village art scene. In effect it’s a 20-year-old family album that’s suddenly been brought from the attic, filled with charming pictures of the young, bohemian and thin.

And oh, what a gang it was. Ur-dealer Gracie Mansion, artist and rock musician Keiko Bonk, East Village Eye boy critic Carlo McCormick, Fun Gallery proprietor Patti Astor, Slaves of New York author Tama Janowitz, graffiti maestro Fab Five Freddy, even Artforum editor Jack Bankowsky, then at the threshold of his career. The art and celebrity establishment dropped by to take a look, people like Andy Warhol (of course) and Cindy Sherman, Paul Simon and Dick Cavett, and collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel. And so many of the talented young people pictured here are now gone -- Craig Coleman, Arch Connelly, Jimmy DeSana, Pat Hearn, Tim Greathouse, Luis Frangella, Dean Savard, John Sex, Martin Wong.

And, needless to say, we have our two principals, Mark and Baird. It seems that in the early 1980s, the pair came up with a fun promotional scheme. Kostabi would run around to openings and art shows in the East Village, and Jones would photograph him posing with the local artists, dealers and other personalities. It just took 20 years to complete. More impeccable timing, from two savants of the pop sell.

Kostabi’s omnipresence in this Zelig-like project -- Woody Allen’s movie came out in 1982, by the way -- actually turns the book into an eerie echo of the East Village gestalt, which was shot through with a certain self-parody. Kostabi is seen in the pictures doing various unremarkable hijinks. He carries a toilet plunger as an accessory, he wears a fake beard, mustache or pointy ears, he holds up signs (“How did you get so far? First class”), he contorts his arms behind his head in a painful-looking display of double-jointedness, he poses acrobatically at gallery openings in mini-events he called “Kosthappenings.” The air of cheerful mockery is everywhere.

Similarly, Mark Kostabi and the East Village Scene, 1983-1987 is not a real history but a fun picture book with a few good anecdotes (the bit at the end about Mark with Sly Stallone, Oprah and Morton Downey is a breezy read). Unfortunately, the avant-garde, despite its frequent silliness, requires a certain gravitas (as is seen in the current offering of the Guggenheim Museum, where Matthew Barney’s Theater of the Ridiculous is presented with considerable sobriety). The East Village was as much a comedy routine as anything else, and the puerile jokesters made barbs at art-world commerce that were just a little too pointed. As it turned out, the joke was on them.

Mark Kostabi and the East Village Scene, 1983-1987 is available for $17.42 from Kostabi World, 90 Ludlow Street, New York, N.Y. 10002.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.

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