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The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984

The Andy Warhol Museum presents an exploration of one of the most volatile places and times in American art history.





Downtown New York City in the 1970s and early '80s was the heart of a huge movement that tested the limits of art and society by moving away from the mainstream genres and galleries. The Downtown Show highlights the unique works that New York artists, writers, musicians, and others created during this period as they crossed over from one medium to another trying to establish the next big art scene.

In the mid-1970s, the streets of downtown New York City were lined with the urban detritus left behind by three generations of immigrants’ children fleeing to the suburbs. The homeless kept warm with discarded newspapers bemoaning the city’s near-bankruptcy, or Reagan’s election, or the strange new disease plaguing the gay population. Yet somewhere amid this garbage and graffiti—somewhere, unbelievably, below 14th Street—there was beauty waiting to be found.

Between 1974 and 1984, America did not “heart” New York. But, as proclaimed with a bold ferocity and knowing smirk in The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-84—showing at The Andy Warhol Museum through September 3—New York did indeed love itself, despite the nation’s rejections. Or, just as likely, because of them.

“ I remember the New York Post headline when Mayor Beame went to the federal government to ask for money to bail the city out,” says The Andy Warhol Museum Director Thomas Sokolowski, himself a New Yorker in 1974. “It said, ‘Ford to New York City: Drop Dead.’”

“ My parents were teachers in 1975, and I remember they couldn’t draw a check because the city couldn’t make payroll,” says Paper Magazine editor and Downtown Show curator, Carlo McCormick. “There was the blackout, there were riots in the Bronx—New York was economically, socially, and politically bankrupt. That’s what these artists inherited, this great rich history all reduced to garbage. But I guess I’m naive enough to believe that artists are our culture’s last alchemists, able to turn that leaden garbage into gold.”

So it is that, in “Salon de Refuse,” one of the eight sections into which The Downtown Show is divided, visitors will find works such as Keith Haring’s Crib, a discarded baby’s crib bearing the artist’s drawings, Alan Vega’s Alien, a cross of found light bulbs and wires, and photos of Mike Bidlo’s Jack the Dripper at Peg’s Place installation, in which the artist appropriated the work, methods, and biography of Jackson Pollock en masse. It’s one of the central themes of The Downtown Show: That these were artists whose history had left them out in the cold—be it political, artistic, or cultural—leaving them to simply create their own history out of whatever they could find.

“ People were really lost at that time,” says McCormick. “In the early ’70s, the art world had painted itself into the proverbial corner—if you weren’t painting a box on the wall, you were passé. The stakes were low, the potential for failure was great, and people enjoyed that.”

Perhaps the best-known example of The Downtown Show’s period is the punk-rock music inexorably linked with late-’70s and early-’80s downtown New York art. As artists such as Tehching Hsieh were testing the limits of art and themselves—his One Year Performance (Time Piece) had Hsieh punching a time clock hourly for a full year—musicians such as Patti Smith and Richard Hell were doing similar things with the rock-music world, albeit in a more publicity-prone way.

“ What people outside of New York City knew about this period was the music,” says Sokolowski. “It was the most transcendent, the most transportable, aspect of the scene. This was really one of the first times when you saw art and music together. In the ’60s, you had pop art and the Beatles, and people like Tom Wolfe saw them as synchronous, but you didn’t see them appearing together. Here you had Patti Smith living with Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, and people were putting together small-gallery shows with bands. It was all crossover.”

As McCormick puts it, “everyone was in a band and every band was in a movie and every writer wrote for the movie, and they were all inhaling the fumes of graffiti.”

Partly because of this crossover between disciplines, The Downtown Show is split into conceptual sections, rather than displayed chronologically or by medium. “Broken Stories” includes examples of the new narrative forms being created by writers such as Kathy Acker and photographers such as Cindy Sherman. “Sublime Time” examines artists looking at time, repetition, and meditation, while also including the music that provided the downtown scene with its soundtrack— from Steve Reich’s neo-classical minimalism to Blondie’s disco-punk. “The Mock Shop” shows how artists found new ways of selling their work outside the gallery system, and how artists like Keith Haring re-formed their work as mass-produced saleable pieces. In “De-Signs,” artists adopted advertising as their own medium, and in “Body Politics,” sexuality and the body itself becomes part of the downtowner’s thematic canvas.

The first section of The Downtown Show provides an introduction to perhaps the era’s most definitive and ground-breaking idea: “Interventions” looks at how artists, musicians, filmmakers, and other creative types responded to the rejection they faced at uptown’s established galleries and museums by creating new models for showing work. It’s a philosophy that still lives on in art scenes across the country.

“ There are similar clubs, coffeehouses, and galleries in Pittsburgh today,” says Sokolowski, “filled with people who don’t find a voice in the mainstream galleries and are willing to do it on their own terms. The idea of trying to create a scene out of what hasn’t been seen, or supported—that’s the legacy of the Downtown era.”

The Downtown Show was organized by the Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library at New York University and curated by Paper Magazine Senior Editor Carlo McCormick.

Support for The Downtown Show comes from The Andy Warhol Museum Board Exhibitions Fund and in part from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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