Downtown development

Pub date October 2, 2012
WriterErick Lyle

LIT/VISUAL ARTS The term “Mission School” was coined in these pages by Glen Helfand in 2002 to describe a loose-knit group of artists based around the Mission District who were then just beginning to break through into international art world success. These artists — including Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, Alicia McCarthy, Rigo 23 and others — made use of found materials and shared an informal aesthetic that was influenced as much by the low rent streets of the city around them as a relaxed, collective Bay Area vibe.

A decade later, it seems safe to say that the Mission School was probably the last major art movement of its kind in this country, and itself the end of an era. For over three decades, significant art and music breakthroughs in this country were linked to specific urban neighborhoods (hip-hop to the South Bronx; Warhol’s Factory to downtown Manhattan, riot grrrl to Olympia, Wash.; grunge to Seattle; Fort Thunder in Providence, RI, etc.) Today, with the rise of the importance of MFA programs as a means to enter the art world, and the lack of locality fostered by the internet, the era of geographic specificity as arts incubator has perhaps passed us for good.

Two new books take us back to those freer, more experimental days at the inception of the SoHo and East Village arts scenes of New York in the 1970s and 80s. 112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974) (Radius Books, 192 pp., $50) is a brief, but invigorating oral history from the early years of what we now know as SoHo. This just-released catalog to last year’s exhibition at Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea brings to life the sense of discovery and improvisation of the nascent neighborhood scene that centered around the legendary pioneering alternative arts space and its north star, the late Gordon Matta-Clark.

In October 1970, when Jeffrey Lew and Matta-Clark opened 112 Greene Street in the storefront of a “rundown former rag picking factory,” the area south of Houston Street was a wasteland of abandoned former textile factories known as Hell’s Hundred Acres. The space, with its lack of heat, and its raw walls, uneven floors, and poor artificial lighting resembled the city then falling apart all around it. The ruins of the city not only influenced the work; sometimes they literally became work.

Alan Saret remembers walking near Canal Street with Matta-Clark one night when a cornice simply fell off a building right in front of them. Saret found some other cornices on the ground nearby and paid the crew of a passing city garbage truck to haul them back to 112 Greene where they became part of a sculpture piece he called Cornices.

Far from the uptown galleries where Manhattan art world power then was consolidated, 112 Greene’s isolation and state of decay fostered a certain kind of “anything goes” artistic freedom and collaborative spirit. For the first opening at 112 Greene, Matta-Clark jackhammered a hole in the basement floor and filled the area with dirt, where he planted a cherry tree that he kept alive all winter with grow lamps. For a later exhibition, George Trakas wanted to do a two-story sculpture, so he simply cut a hole in the floor so his piece could rise up out of the basement into the main floor. The only rule seemed to be that work had to be created on site and could not be made for sale.

Perhaps predictably, with this last rule, the space could barely keep its doors open. Yet, there is a timeless lesson here for those running arts spaces today: the downfall of 112 Greene came ironically only after it finally achieved financial stability. When Lew landed a big NEA grant in 1973, pure art experimentation and spontaneity gradually gave way to formal scheduling and programming guidelines from the funders in DC, who demanded more and more say in the operation of the space. “The excitement that anything could happen waned as paperwork and schedules were enforced,” remembers Lew. The core group of artists slowly drifted away from 112 Greene, just as the original SoHo, too, was beginning to change all around them into the high-end shopping district it is today.

The SoHo model has become a cynical real estate gentrification strategy, as developers create prefab arts — and shopping — neighborhoods in empty warehouse districts across the country from Miami to Portland, Ore. to Brooklyn. But if, say, Bushwick’s art scene feels less like a real place than the shores of a desert island where hundreds of young artists have been randomly washed up by the storms of the global economy, 112 Greene Street reminds us that the first art neighborhoods were formed organically around genuine community. In 1971, Matta-Clark and artist Carol Goodden started an artist-run collective restaurant in SoHo called Food. By all accounts, Food was not some relational aesthetic stunt; it was a well loved and sincere attempt to provide cheap meals, a gathering place, and jobs to artists in the scene.

112 Greene Street ends before Matta-Clark’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer at age 35 in 1978, and before the artist would famously take the work he developed in the ruins of 112 Greene out into the ruins of the city with a practice he dubbed “Anarchitecture.” He took the city as his canvas, transforming raw space by sawing dramatic cuts in the floors and facades of abandoned buildings in the South Bronx and industrial parts of New Jersey. But the charm and dreamy freedom of the era 112 Greene Street depicts comes through in Matta-Clark’s film, Day’s End. In it, Matta-Clark works calmly with a blowtorch, cutting holes in the steel ceiling of an abandoned city pier on the Hudson River (with no apparent fear of getting caught) as the space slowly fills with radiant light.

A decade later, another artist who would die too young, David Wojnarowicz, would also find a wide-open playground in the rotting piers along the river. Wojnarowicz would spend hours at the piers, writing about what he saw there, having sex with strangers, and drawing murals or writing poetry on the crumbling walls. Wojnarowicz delighted in the ruins and saw the piers as a sign that America’s empire was fading away before his eyes. That today we know it was actually only Wojnarowicz’s world that was about to disappear is just one of the many poignant aspects of Cynthia Carr’s beautiful new book, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury USA, 624 pp., $35), the first comprehensive biography to date of the artist, writer, and activist who died of AIDS at the age of 39 in 1992.

On the run from an abusive father, Wojnarowicz started sleeping with older men for money while living on the streets in his teens. Drawn to other criminals and outlaws, his first published writings were based on interviews he did with street hustlers, travelers, and homeless people he met in skid row waterfront diners and on hitchhiking trips. In the works of Jean Genet, he found a literary moral universe that helped him make sense of his own worldview. One of his earliest surviving works, a collage entitled St. Genet, depicts the French writer wearing a halo in the foreground while in the background, Jesus is tying off to shoot up. While Wojnarowicz would continue to use such blunt religious imagery in his work, the collage resonates in other ways. Carr reports that it was Kathy Acker who first called Wojnarowicz “a saint” when she appeared with him at his final public reading in 1991. The identification of Wojnarowicz’s life and work with the tragic loss of so many daring, outlaw artists to AIDS is so complete that Wojnarowicz has become a patron saint to young queer and activist artists today, his life story surrounded by an aura of myth.

Carr, a former arts reporter for the Village Voice, carefully picks apart myth from fact: Wojnarowicz didn’t actually start selling his body for money at age nine as he often claimed and he also wasn’t a founding member of ACT UP as many people suppose (though he did participate in some ACT UP protests). Yet, the complex and more human Wojnarowicz that Carr leaves us with is no less inspiring a figure — a self-taught artist whose lifelong struggle to make meaningful art out of his own experience, sexuality, and ultimate diagnosis with an incurable disease would almost by chance place him front and center in the story of the AIDS crisis and the great culture wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Carr, a resident of the East Village now for four decades, became friends with Wojnarowicz late in his life, and she refreshingly breaks journalistic “objectivity” to insert her own eyewitness perspective into the narrative at many key junctures. One senses Fire in the Belly is so good precisely because it is a story only Carr could personally tell. Built on years of observation, Fire in the Belly has the ambitious scope and rich detail of a novel, and, more than a biography, is the story of a fabled East Village scene now irrevocably lost.

Wojnarowicz arrived in a gritty East Village where whole blocks had been abandoned to heroin dealers and bricked up tenements. A nihilistic neighborhood arts scene embraced the decay of the streets as an aesthetic, and galleries like Civilian Warfare Studios presented a giddy cocktail of downtown punk and queer culture mixed with the freshly born graffiti and hip-hop scenes of the South Bronx. Carr relates now-famous events like Gracie Mansion’s “Loo Division” show (mounted in the bathroom of her E. Ninth Street walkup), Keith Haring painting on the snow on the street in front of his show at Fun Gallery, and the exploits of the Wrecking Crew — a team including Wojnarowicz and other artists who would binge on acid and stay awake for days, filling galleries with creepy and crazed collaborative installations.

The artists’ isolation would not protect them from the art world for long. Soon, limos were disgorging passengers at openings on the heroin and rat-filled terra incognita east of First Avenue. East Village stalwarts like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Haring became rich and internationally famous, and even Wojnarowicz became a fairly established up-and-coming art star. The rags-to-riches story of the East Village scene might be the same kind of innocent tale of lost Bohemia as that of 112 Greene, were it not for the AIDS crisis shadowing it the whole time. Carr skillfully juxtaposes the narrative of openings and parties with chronological news reports of the then-unknown new disease. Carr describes a party on Fire Island in July 1981: writer Cookie Mueller read a story from the New York Times out loud to the room about a strange, new “gay cancer”. Photographer Nan Goldin, who was present, remembers today, “We all just kind of laughed.”

Carr’s tale picks up suspense after Wojnarowicz himself is diagnosed with AIDS. Over a breathtaking two-year period, Wojanrowicz embarks on an urgent mission to complete every single art project he’d ever hoped to accomplish in the time left to him in life. In the process he almost reluctantly becomes the fiery AIDS activist we remember today. While working on his career retrospective, he also battles the harassment of his landlord who is determined to evict Wojnarowicz and convert his loft in the gentrifying East Village into a cinema multiplex. He struggles to complete his memoir, even as his work becomes the focus of battles over government funding of art. Soon, Republicans denounce the dying man’s work as obscene and anti-Christian on the floors of Congress, and Wojnarowicz becomes a target of conservative Mississippi preacher Reverand Donald Wildmon’s public attacks. Wojnarowicz absorbed these attacks and the era’s stunning homophobia and turned them into what became the most powerful work of his career, the myth of his own life.

Carr’s book stands along with recent work like Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of The Mind as a corrective to the uncritical nostalgia for the lost New York City of the 1970s and 80s that seems to have flowed like a river from Patti Smith’s 2009 memoir, Just Kids. These works unromantically detail what has been lost and then lovingly describe exactly how painfully it was all lost. Yet, perhaps all is not lost. While arts neighborhoods like the ones described in 112 Greene Street and Fire in the Belly seem like a thing of the past, the towering myths left behind by figures like Matta-Clark and Wojanrowicz still bring young artists against all odds to the rehabbed neighborhoods of San Francisco and New York today. Everytime Sara Thustra serves a meal at an opening at Adobe Books on 16th Street or Homonomixxx shuts down a Wells Fargo bank, we walk, if just for a short time, the streets of our old familiar city.

David Wojnarowicz: Cynthia Carr and Amy Scholder in Conversation
Wed/3, 7:30pm, free
Lecture Hall
San Francisco Art Institute
800 Chestnut, SF