"Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes!" Do you know that lyric? (It’s from Rent.) Bohemia has been a musical for more than 100 years -- Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème debuted at Teatro Regio in Turin in 1896, though Henri Murger’s Bohemians of the Latin Quarter was first produced as a play way back in 1849.
Now we have "The Downtown Show: The New York Scene 1974-84," organized by Carlo McCormick for NYU's Grey Art Gallery and the Fales Library, which also has its share of musical moments. I remember standing outside of 420 West Broadway -- the nexus of SoHo art-market power in the 1970s and ‘80s -- about 30 years ago, listening to the hypnotic arpeggios of the Philip Glass ensemble drift down from Sonnabend Gallery, and it seems that I spent much of the early ‘80s -- the wee hours, anyway -- sitting in the cloakroom at 8BC, a down-on-the-heels East Village nightclub, ignoring the fabulous lineup of musical acts in order to play gin with none other than McCormick, who ran the coat check.
Such study would seem to be ideal preparation for the guy who has turned out to be to curating what Christopher Wool is to abstract painting -- the essence of louche. Earlier manifestations of McCormick’s genius -- yes, let me repeat that, his genius (you know he was a teen chess champion, and played the cello before giving it all up and moving down to Suffolk Street to become chief art critic of the East Village Eye) -- were the vast display of record albums at Exit Art in 2002 and a 2004 exhibition on the Yankees and the Mets at the Bronx Museum and the Queens Museum, respectively (co-organized with Tom Solomon).
"The Downtown Show" is all about youth, sad, angry, broke, pretty, serious and silly youth, an emotional and engaging romp down darkly romantic streets. It’s so affecting because its material is so human, ephemeral, fresh and rare, drawn from forgotten archives (most of it), rather than being emblematic artworks temporarily borrowed from the art market (in distinct contrast to just about every other museum exhibition).
Funny, it’s so like McCormick, to show himself to be a curator with the kind of brilliance that no real museum would have any use for.
When I told him that an ‘80s New York artist, long since fled to academia in California, had complained to me that "my friend" had left him out of the exhibition, Carlo said he’d have to apologize. The guy "would have been perfect for the show," he said, "just the kind of obscurity I was looking for."
As a chronicle of bohemia, "Downtown" provides a "counter-history" that omits the great and powerful, such as the aforementioned (and now forgotten?) 420 West Broadway gallery building, where many of us first saw Kenneth Noland stripe paintings, Robert Morris mirror and scatter accumulations, body art by Vito Acconci and Conceptual Art by Mel Bochner. Remember those guys? No? Go ahead, Bruce Nauman, move to New Mexico and see what happens!
Finally, the new "Downtown" history delightfully conflates SoHo and the East Village, a prospect that seems less and less absurd as time goes by. As a forgotten artist who moved from SoHo (rent: $167/month) to Ludlow Street (rent: $150/month) in 1980, I love that idea, for some reason.
The show has a nice website, but it really deserves a real-life visit.
Smith was tall and slim, with a vandyke beard and squinty expression, as if perpetually perplexed at the world’s inability to get his point of view. "I just want to show my own films," he’d say, plaintively. By then Smith was a bit past his prime -- Flaming Creatures was first shown in 1963, and banned in 1964 -- and his eccentricity was so pronounced that he didn’t function that well in the real world.
So it was fun to wander into Deitch Projects on Grand Street and find a show devoted to Smith, something called "Radical Earth Magic Flower" by someone called Bec Stupak & Honeygun Labs -- basically an over-the-top, post-rave drag troupe, really big on outlandish costumes, glitter and partial nudity. Flower Child that I am, that whole Living Theater, Merry Prankster, Summer of Love utopian trip still gets me at "hello." There’s really nothing quite like a troupe of beautiful youngsters abandoning their inhibitions for the sake of an artist-director. It reminded me of a photograph by Ryan McGinley that I saw at the Ratio3 booth at the NADA fair in Miami, showing five cute kids all naked and sprawled together in a bathtub. Squeaky clean!
Anyway, the installation at Deitch is a presentation, deconstruction and homage to Flaming Creatures, all in one. On the south wall is the original film, playing large in all its washed-out bright black-and-white beauty. On the east wall is a storyboard of Smith’s movie, projected frame-by-frame. And on the north wall is the Honeygun Labs recreation, done in gloriously vulgar color. The new version may lack that classic drag-queen glamour, but it is enthusiastic. It’s not the fault of Honeygun that its mock depravity comes at such a permissive time, when the entire pornography industry -- speaking of troupes of free-spirited youngsters -- is completely above-ground.
The show is especially interesting because it is co-organized with Salander-O’Reilly by 1980s Wall Street mogul Asher Edelman, who quit the Street to run his own museum in Lausanne before giving it up and eventually becoming an art dealer, doing business as Edelman Arts. As a collector, Edeman said, he has owns about 1,000 works. As for Winter, an English artist who lives in Berlin, he has worked as a tour guide in Bavaria, if that explains anything. Most of the paintings are sold, priced $7,500-$15,000.
For a more contemporary salute to Bacchus, visit ATM Gallery on West 20th Street, where the 45-year-old artist and art dealer Nick Lawrence is showing a slew of rough-hewn, wild-eyed paintings -- see especially Hank’s Last Beer (2005), an irresistible celebration of dumb-ass drinking, yours for $7,500. Lawrence, one of the original partners with Zach Feuer in the red-hot LFL Gallery, now runs a space called Freight + Volume, and has operated the DNA Gallery in Provincetown for some time.
The spirit of another legendary art-world Bacchus -- Martin Kippenberger -- was invoked at Mitchell Algus Gallery on West 25th Street, when the vintage 1970s-80s gang again came out for the opening of a show of artworks by Eric Mitchell, who before he moved to Barbès, Paris, 20 years ago, made films in New York with John Lurie, James Nares, Amos Poe and Becky Johnston, among others who mostly have moved on to other things. Mitchell was back in town, even though no one knew he made art, to show some old drawings and some new photographs (notably a pair of photos of blue eyes, a left and a right, mounted just the proper distance apart, and priced at $500 each, negotiable). The whole thing was stage-managed by journalist Adrian Dannatt -- he wrote the press release, at least.
The opening boasted a recreation of a performance purportedly written by Lurie with help from Nares and originally performed by Mitchell and Kippenberger. Here it was recreated by Mitchell and two collaborators, one on the guitar, largely in the dark, adding nicely to the mood of general obscurity.
Mitchell stood in a corner of the gallery wearing a plastic bucket on his head and somberly exclaiming, from within the bucket, "I went to Maine." Mitchell’s young associate, standing impassively to his left, periodically whacked the bucket with a wooden meat-tenderizing mallet, saying, "I want to maim!" The show was blessedly short, properly nonsensical and esoterically vanguard in its appeal, to be sure.
Alcohol isn’t the elixir it once was, since, like tobacco, it has become too commercial, everywhere available and without magic (more modern and thus still mysterious chemicals have taken its place). At Newman Popiashvili, now in new quarters at 504 West 22nd Street, the young conceptual artist Michael Dee (b. 1974) has crafted a sculpture of a Star. Clear and multifaceted, organic yet hard-edged, Star sits on a lightbox in a dark room. It’s fabricated of plastic whiskey tumblers that have been seamlessly and invisibly welded together into a hard, polyethylene mass. As Irena Popiashvili points out, Dee’s star is false, illuminated but cold and without energy of its own. It’s $1,500. The exhibition is titled "Thick, Warm and Round."
Notions of the studio as a haven for free thought and transgression, as well as a zone of authenticity, are in plentiful supply at "The Studio Visit" at Exit Art, a rollicking and thoroughly delightful show of short videos by more than 160 artists. Mike Bidlo recreated Yves Klein "Anthropometry" laboratory, painting nude models blue and pressing them against canvas. Seems like a good shorthand for the studio experience, though Bidlo was dressed in casual clothes rather than an impresario’s tuxedo or a scientist’s lab coat.
The video by Kim Jones shows the artist in his studio with his elaborate, pencil-drawn maps of battle games and "Mud Man" camouflage. Jones transforms himself into "Mud Man" with an elaborate apparatus of sticks and other camouflage that he wears during journeys that are like personal Stations of the Cross. His exhibition at Pierogi last fall was titled "War Paint," so one might understandably think that his practice is rooted in a high-octane personal experience -- Jones served in Vietnam in the ‘60s -- and so is more authentic, somehow, more expressive of something that is more than esthetic self-indulgence. No such luck. Jones wasted no time disabusing me of this romantic idea. "Walter, it’s the same old nonsense as everyone else," he said, or words to that effect.
Needless to say, the notion of an uninhibited cast of Looney Tune characters is familiar from the great cartoon houses of our youth -- Hanna Barbera, Walter Lantz, Warner Brothers, Disney -- a sensibility that has been a rich source for contemporary artists. No one comes to mind more forcefully in this respect than the great Neo-Surrealist painter George Condo, who opens his first-ever show at Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels, Jan. 26-Mar. 4, 2006. Titled "Existential Portraits," the show features Condo’s cast of characters, including the Dutch Girl and the Playboy Bunny. Batman also makes an appearance.
A similar poetry of nature can be found just a few blocks south on West 21st Street, in the small storefront that serves as the third space of the Matthew Marks Gallery empire. There, passersby on dark evenings can find a captivating pretend-snowfall for our snowless winter, courtesy Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. The square bits of paper flutter down from a colorless, rectangular metal "cloud," gathering in a random pile to be swept up and recycled -- presumably, a model for New York’s post-natural world.
So many sculptures these days seem to be rehearsing, in one way or another, the abstract syncopations of David Smith (vertical) and Anthony Caro (horizontal). At Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, in a show called "Punching through the Clouds" organized by Anna-Catharina Gebbers, there is a definitively post-modernist monument by the Berlin artist Florian Slotawa (b. 1972) made of shelving and closet units ordered from Ikea and assembled -- or perhaps that should be misassembled -- as a kind of white fiberboard veneer and mirror monolith. It’s called As Yet Untitled (2006) and is €12,000.
Also on view are some dignified black-and-white photographs of ordinary objects, such as a collection of six 45-rpm records, or an aluminum stepladder and a studio vacuum cleaner. It turns out that these photos are the remnants of a project in which the sculptor sold all his possessions to a collector -- items that are now stored away, with the collector contractually forbidden to unpack them.
Spotted at Mallet on Madison Avenue just south of the Whitney Museum, a mounted collection of 19th-century French painted plaster molds of edible wild mushrooms, yours for $42,750 -- reminiscent of Roxy Paine’s plastic and polymer models of plants in the huge 8 x 11 foot Weed Choked Garden, on view now at James Cohan Gallery.
Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art moves from 56 East 66th to Anthony Grant’s old space at 37 West 57th Street.
At Guild & Greyshkul on Wooster Street in SoHo, see "Means without End," a group show that includes a 1973 black-and-white video by Valie Export called The Inability of Expressing Oneself through Facial Expression, in which the naked artist torments and then apparently murders a defenseless parakeet. The show is organized by Joao Ribas.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.