Carlo McCormick is a curator and critic who has been a fixture on the New York Art scene for more than 25 years. The author of numerous books and monographs, he is a widely published writer and currently senior editor of New Yorks pop-culture bible, Paper magazine.
"The Downtown Show, a survey curated by McCormick at New York Universitys Grey Art Gallery, looks at the vibrant and eclectic arts scene in Lower Manhattan between 1974 and 1984. The retrospective, which charts this seminal time period, includes hundreds of paintings, sculptures, drawings and videos, as well as photographs, artists books, journals and ephemera. The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 19741984 (published by Princeton University Press).
After its New York debut, the show travels to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., from May 20 to Sept. 3, 2006, and the Austin Museum of Art, in Austin, Texas, from Nov. 18, 2006 to Jan. 28, 2007.
While putting the show together, did you find there was one thing that really defined the now-mythic downtown aesthetic?
This wasnt a great era for manifestos. We had come through so much of that, with Modernism and Minimalism, so there was a reaction against making extreme manifesto-type statements. I took my cues from how people talked [then] about not liking this work. Michael Fried talked about theatricality in Artforummy god, he couldnt have used a meaner termand others spoke about pluralism, implying that we had lost our way.
The most obvious thing was that the art was inherently anti-institutional. It was against positions of authorityand against hierarchies. I wanted to preserve that. Of course, thats the hardest thing to do. How do you put work that is anti-institutional into a show at a university, with another university publishing a book about it? The aesthetics of that time were all over the place. I tried to find some links and also keep the vitality that I think was so important. I could try to pull up all the obscurity I wanted to, but I couldnt do this show without people like Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. But instead of an aesthetic, I guess I would call it an attitude.
The derogatory terms you mentiontheatricality and pluralismthat were used to describe that attitude, are now the same used to describe contemporary art in a positive way.
Definitely. Thats part of why I figured that if were going to revisit the past, lets at least acknowledge that were revisiting the past in 2006. I wasnt trying to be revisionist, but I was very much thinking of the shows audience and wanted the show to be something that kids today who are artists, or care about art, could look at and see some of the roots of issues theyre still working with.
In that sense, the show is almost a blueprint for contemporary art, particularly in the way it shows boundaries becoming so fluid between, say, musicians and artists.
Absolutely, and between all boundaries, really. Thats why I wanted all forms of art to be in a dialogue with one another, because thats what was going on. Video and performance art are so often ghettoized. In that time, artists might make a movie and ask people who were in bands to star in the movie, and then a designer would do the costumes, and a photographer would do the stills. I wanted to get the sense of that dialogue, and the fact that artists were working across media too.
There are artists in the show who seemed to be so vital to the downtown scene but are now all but forgottensomeone like filmmaker Eric Mitchell comes to mindpeople who are pared with canonical figures like Cindy Sherman and Warhol. How did that influence the show?
The thing about downtown at the time was that we all thought we were famous. Everyone was famous. Cookie Muller was super-famous in our world, as was Richard Princewe didnt know how famous he was going to become. Eric Mitchell was famous. If you asked Jim Jarmusch back then about Mitchell, hed be like, If that nut can make films, so can I.
I have no problem that if in the eye of the needle of history, its somehow decided that Jean-Michel Basquiat is the only important artist from that era. You know, they could have chosen worse. But hes not the only artistthats sort of my approach. To me, Jimmy DeSana was a really major photographer; same with Peter Hujar. When I was first working on the show, Hujar was basically forgotten, although now hes sort of becoming canonicalso that shows history is a pretty slippery thing. In the scheme of things, of course, DeSana is still pretty obscure, but he was a big influence on Robert Mapplethorpe. Hes canonical, but with Jimmy DeSana, its like, Who? But he was really importanthis loft is where Keith Haring used to live. He was a major cultural force whos been totally forgotten.
There are other people like Christof Kohlhoferan older artist, a contemporary of people like Polkewho is now totally forgotten. He taught everyone their aesthetic strategies. Hows he in the show? This homeless sign from 1979. Youve got all these Bowery bums trying to wipe your window for money, and he was going, Let me give you a buck for your sign. He was really opening the eyes of people like Kiki Smith to how art could have a subversive content without beating you over the head with politics.
But the time period covered by the show was pretty political. And not a particularly good time in the history of New York.
Its the economic nadir. You had the white flightnot just people moving to the suburbs, but businesses leaving. The city was empty. When you see those Peter Hujar photographs, thats really how empty New York was.
Well, if the city was bankrupt and desolate, why was the art so vibrant?
You had this big number of artistsmaybe not as many as todayin a place of unlimited possibility. There was this massive influx of creative types, who were working at all sorts of different things, all in this place where, basically, everyone was in the same room together. And without really having to worry about their rent, or about making a living. They could bartend one night a week and basically have their rent covered. Theres was also the availability of spacenot just living space, but you could open up a store-front gallery for like $150 bucks a month. You had all these things colliding.
In SoHo in the 70s, you still had some vestiges of the garment-manufacturing industry; in the East Village you still had this Dominican and Puerto Rican population. The artists were responding to this environment, and also to the decay, to the drugs, crime, disenfrachisement and the sense of no future. But you know, you could be Alan Vega and go down to Canal Street and for two dollars and buy all the damn weird lighting equipment you could and slap it together with some found boards and make a sculpture.
What do you think has changed about the New York art scene?
At the time, Clement Greenberg was still saying if you dont live in New York you dont matter. That was still true; people still believed it. Right now, you dont have to be in New York. You probably need a New York gallery to sustain a certain position in the art-world, but you dont need to be here.
But is there still a vital downtown art scene?
Ive always embraced youth culture. I really care what the kids are up to, and as far as Im concerned, the kids are all right. Im pretty critical about whats going on in the art-world right now, but I was that way back then, too. And I dont think our culture is any more anemic now than it was.
There are a lot of things happening under the art-world radar that arent happening in Chelsea, that are just as vital. Now, my tastes have always been suspect, but I think that all these artists who are making toys now are amazing: The Chelsea and 57th Street world isnt dealing with the fact that artists are working with companies in Hong Kong to create this weird figure they put their art on. There are all these weird things going on that dont look like art, and the stuff in The Downtown Show didnt look like art.
I think the art world is as stupid now as it has ever been. The only advantage I have with the show is 25 years of distance, so people can see how this stuff is important. But today, its not about the kids who are being coined and minted right out of art school. The moment the The Downtown Show captures is one in which people were really allowed to fail. Right now the stakes are so high, Im not sure that people are allowed fail in a gallery that pays $20,000 on rent alone, and thats not factoring in all of the damn ads and the huge stafftheyre nuts are gi-normous right now! Back then there was a better chance that you could fail and you werent judged on the relative success of your last show.
That seemed to breed a kind of anti-professional attitude, a sense of freedom that made people eager try anything...
The show surveys 1974 to 84, so one of the big things running through it is of course punk rock, and then post-punk and new wave. Of course part of that is this do-it-yourself thing, and a big part of it is also being against virtuosity. It disturbs me know that they are starting up courses in criticism, for exampletheyre trying to professionalize it. All of us were a bunch of losers, drug addicts and perverts. It was a pretty sad lot.
Yet the era also bred Madonna. She looms over the show as an icon, along with Warhol.
Madonna is in the show, in this video, which has her performing at Keith Haring''s "Party for Life" in 1984. But then theres also this vitrine by Maripolwho designed Madonnas clothescalled Like A Virgin that traces how Maripol created Madonnas look, how Madonna took her work.
Madonna, Warhol and Schnabel, people like that, are in the show in ways that are less recognizable. I didnt put in one of Schnabels plate pieceslets look at what Julian Schnabel was before he was Julian Schnabel.
What do you think of the current revivalism of 80s culture? Why do you think we want to revisit that time?
I dont like revivals, but I think nostalgia is omnipresent. But If I have a complaint about the 80s revival it is that I wish people learned the B-sides. I wish 80s nostalgia would make people dig a little deeper. It drives me nuts that I have to hear the same music in clubs I used to hear 25 years ago, for example.
What do you think younger artists should take from the show?
Whatevers not nailed to the wallor whatever fits under their coats. ... They should take the sense that if you look at most of these artists, they didnt go around with their slides to the galleriesthey basically created their own venues. They did it on their terms, with their own audience. They didnt do it for anyone else. Maybe its an impractical strategy with the stakes being so high now, but I hope they take the sense that you dont necessarily have to get into this gallery, or this show. The margins are still a vital place.