Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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DOWNTOWN ARCHIVES

Titled after the 98 Bowery address where he lived from 1969–1989, the online database curated by Marc H. Miller documents the art and music circles that populated the Lower East Side in one of NYC’s most mythologized cultural epochs. Ultimately subdued by AIDS and commercialism, the scene may feel impossibly distant in our gentrified, post-social-media world; but in this polymorphous archive of ephemera, its spirit lives on.

Words by Kenta Murakami

In 1969, the artist, art historian, later curator, and now art ephemera dealer Marc H.Miller moved into a loft located at 98 Bowery in New York. Historically a diverse immigrant neighborhood of tenements, the Lower East Side’s first wave of occupation by artists coincided with the large-scale flight of its white residents to the suburbs beginning in the post-war 1950s. By the time of Miller’s arrival, the Lower East Side—then widely called "Losaida" by its Hispanic population—remained in a state of neglect by the city and its landlords, reduced beyond its renting population to hotels for the homeless, restaurant supply stores, and the city’s by-far largest concentration of bars. While the East Village, an area only differentiated by name since the ’60s by real estate developers, experienced a more robust wave of artistic activity throughout the previous decade—documented in the early underground newspaper The East Village Other—the Bowery was still a relatively close-knit constellation of artists. In 1962, John Giorno had moved into Mark Rothko’s former studio at 222 Bowery. He was joined four years later by William S. Burroughs and was often visited by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. In 1969, Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayor ceased publishing the magazine 0 TO 9 from the former’s loft across the street; Adrian Piper and Sol LeWitt lived in a building on Hester street just around the corner from Miller; Eva Hesse, who died in 1970, lived on the next block over. Joining these earlier settlers, Miller was part of the first large influx of self-exiled suburbanites moving into the often recently converted flophouses-turned-lofts south of East Houston. On his personal website, 98 Bowery, titled after the address at which he lived until 1989, Miller documents his life moving amongst the various art and music circles that came to populate this neighborhood over the course of the ’70s and ’80s in what is now one of New York City’s richest and most mythologized cultural epochs.

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Harry’s Bar sat at the foot of Marc’s building in 1969. By Miller’s description, it is easy to transpose his block into the world captured in Martha Rosler’s piece The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-5): a grid of twenty-four photographs documenting stops along the piss-saturated and bottle-littered facades of the fifteen-block boulevard, each paired with various words that could be used to describe the dense concentration of slouching figures by which its color was defined: comatose unconscious / passed out knocked out / laid out / out of the picture / out like a light; loopy groggy boozy / blind drunk / dead drunk / embalmed / buried / gone. On one of 98 Bowery’s many pages, Marc has a picture of himself posing with one of these so-called Bowery Bums, his eager selfie squat somehow pointing to the potentiality his environment’s dark state of decline contained for making art. In an early work from 1974, also on this page, Marc presents photographs of the near-retirement namesake of Harry’s Bar, Harry Mason, going about his aging establishment wearing a beige cardigan, striped vest, and buttoned collared shirt, paired with scrawled captions describing the events pictured, such as "I am wiping the bar".

The mundane facticity of Miller and Rosler’s sets of images, while still artworks, appear in their initial presentation as mere documents—records of something beyond the scope of description, recognized even then as ephemeral and worth writing down. Since 2009, Miller has operated a companion website to his personal history called Gallery 98, which sells and documents exhibition fliers, posters, performance documentation, catalogs, magazines, artworks, and other hard to categorize things from this period, sourced originally from several dozen boxes he rediscovered in his basement upon his divorce. Now cataloging many of the more iconic moments of the era—Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring show flyers, for example—it also captures many of the alternative spaces, DIY galleries, and independent newspapers that characterized the period at its most fugitive. The eclecticism and effusiveness contained in this image bank of art world PR is a difficult thing to reconcile with the cold mundanity of Rosler or Miller’s conceptual works. Both the danger and the freedom of living in lower Manhattan at this time have been romanticized to the point where it’s impossible for anyone who has only witnessed it since the turn of the century to actually imagine how it felt.

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I think of Louise Lawler’s canonized sound performance that beganin 1972, in which she sings the names of famous male artists—Carl Andre, Sandro Chia, John Baldessari, Cy Twombly—as if they were bird calls, in an attempt to sound crazy enough to pass through downtown undisturbed from where she was working on the Hudson piers. This facetious ability to blend in with the area’s night denizens reveals the insularity of the art world and its internal divisions. While it is easy in retrospect to conflate the various networks of professionalized galleries concentrated in Soho, spaces that came and went throughout the East Village and Lower East Side, and after-hours venues through which these scenes galvanized, in talking to artists it becomes clear that each had their own geographic anchors, friendships, and affiliated peers. The exclusion of artists of color and women, and the number of gay artists still living professionally in the closet, were rampant issues in the ’70s ghettoized spaces and solutions. Many lesser-known figures were homeless themselves. In short, all of these artists were very much living their own lives.

In 1975, a young Jeffrey Deitch made his curatorial debut with a show called LIVES, which included Miller. The exhibition was an expansion of sorts on the Swiss curator Harald Szeemann’s notion of “Individual Mythologies,” which informed his documenta 5 in Kassel three years earlier and thematized the emergence of a very ’70s kind of artist preoccupied with their own inner world. Deitch’s grouping of post-conceptual works revealed a similar preoccupation with a self-reflexive analysis of their work’s circulation and an interest in addressing a subject matter that influenced mass culture. He set up three patriarchs with Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol—who Miller describes simply as the reason his generation had moved to New York—and Ray Johnson, whose fansy-like letter clubs tapped into a truly metropolitan artistic network of largely queer artists worldwide. A print culture thrived, as well as an interest in self-mythologizing. One of the included artists was Colette, who’d become known for her Wall Street apartment wrapped in rushed boles of satin and silk, her entire world being both a curiosity and a lush diorama of alienation and art.

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A kind of marketing eroticism was at play, with Lynda Benglis’ infamous dildo ad in Artforum the year prior, and General Idea at large. At the time Miller was frequenting CBGBs, the punk venue known for launching endless no-wave careers, and its own mediated culture of flirtation and fun. Miller and his then-partner Bettie Ringma did a conceptual performance in which they took pictures of Bettie with all of the CBGB stars. Developing a series of “punk portfolios” they placed ads in magazines like Rolling Stone, so that people, wherever they were, could order pictures of a Dutch stranger posing with their favorite stars.

In 1978, Colette did a performance in which she died at the downtown branch of the Whitney Museum, appearing at PS1 across town that night as Justine and the Victorian Punks. A kind of conceptual art band, Justine existed through her circulation in the media and physical presence. The release of their first album was preceded by months of conceptual surrogates. From then on, Colette documented her interventions in the form of albums and traded “records” from the story of her life. This inverted Popism of punk was solidified the same year in a show Miller curated, again with Ringma and Washington Project for the Art’s Alice Denney, called “Punk Art.” It is a read-worthy affair that is wonderfully documented on Miller’s site, a landmark complete with a fashion show by Animal X and Daimon, live tattoos by Ruth Marten, a riotous battle of the bands, good art, and a canceled (pre-show) Tom Otterness piece that casts Chris Burden in his iconic Shoot Piece as a dog. Central to the event’s success was the involvement of Punk Magazine, a three-person teen team from Connecticut that had developed a codified hand-drawn sensibility for the diffuse movement, circulating profiles on everyone from Lou Reed, to Patti Smith, to Suicide. Including art that ranged from Alan Vega’s glowing fluorescent sculptures to Leslie Schiff’s Xerox manipulations, Miller describes the work as being somewhat like the feminist art movement, in the sense of somehow being more of a social orientation than an affiliation defined by a coherent medium or style. Miller, Ringman, and photorealist Curt Hopped collaborated to create a striking painting of a picture of Bettie with the Ramones, signed at CBGBs by the band to create an ever-dating memorial to a moment now long gone.

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The thing that is so striking about the material on 98 Bowery is how attentive it was to itself as media. The advertising and ephemera of the ’80s were impeccable, fun—a kind of over-stylized conceptualism made camp, with enterprises like FUN and Gracie Mansion Gallery literally making their livings off of it. In 1981 Mansion, Sur Rodney Sur, and Buster Cleveland staged an exhibition of the latter’s neo-Dada collages in a limo parked on the corner of West Broadway and Spring, with Sur carrying cherries on a silver tray. Supposedly waiting for Leo Castelli to walk by, the exhibition shows the kind of DIY gumption that parodied the seemingly mammoth mainstream galleries of the time. Making up for their lack of money with human resources, Sur’s role in the gallery was more or less as an art director. The new galleries of the East Village—also including Civilian Warfare, International with Monument, Nature Morte, and at a remove, Metro Pictures, among others—acted as an interconnected part of a scene that witnessed Nan Goldin projecting slides at the Pyramid and Club 57; Greer Lankton’s storefront installations at her partner’s store Einsteins; endless important shows at Artists Space, the Kitchen, the feminist AIR Gallery, black-run Kenkeleba, JAM (Just Above Midtown), and Alanna Heiss’ PS. It saw Danceteria, disco, performance art, drag queens, heroin, and speed; the wonderful criticism of Rene Ricard, Gary Indiana, Edit DeAk and Walter Robinson; and Jimmy DeSana’s images in places like File and X Magazine.

File was run by Diego Cortez, who curated the landmark New York / No Wave that launched the careers of Basquait and others. A product of Colab (Collaborative Projects Inc), X Magazine was a magazine in which the artists were free to do whatever they wanted. A kind of anarchist collective that mounted the historic Time Square Show and Real Estate Show (group exhibitions-cum-large-scale political and community events), Colab’s uncurated curatorial style strove for a radical democracy of which we’ve never seen anything like since. There were the off-shoot organizations ABC No Rio, still run out of its original location in the Lower East Side and began as an occupation of a vacant city-owned school, and Fashion Moda, a compatriot gallery in the South Bronx that showed John Ahearn’s plaster portraits of the neighborhood, Christy Rupp’s rat sculptures and stencils, and Keith Haring, John Fekner, Fab 5 Freddy, CRASH, and Lady Pink, whose throw-ups, murals, and street interventions served as often monumental but ephemeral calling cards.

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Group Material, the alternatively determinedly-curated collective runby Julie Ault, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Félix González- Torres, Hans Haacke, and others was a complementary foil nearby, organizing exhibitions around America’s intervention in Central America, AIDS, and gentrification, and holding shows via ads on the subways, trains, and pages of The New York Times. Jane Dickson organized the exhibition “Messages to The Public” on the Spectacolor board of the rapidly touristifying Times Square. And then of course there was AIDS. The decade was devastated by the loss of art historical giants too many to name. ACT UP, Gran Fury, and many other organizations took on the political antics of the Guerrilla Girls, developing a form of public messaging that had its own urgent form. While the so-called end of the era is often attributed to the solidifying commercialization of the art world—frequently marked by the ascent of the Neo-Geo formalism of Peter Halley, Haim Steinbach, and Jeff Koons, the supremacyofNeo-expressionism, the rise and fall of graffiti’s market, and no longer affordable rents—Sur Rodney Sur recognizes in a Smithsonian oral history the role AIDS played in causing the energy to subside. Overshadowed by grief and fear, the scene fractured as people no longer kissed at openings and stalwarts of the community passed away one after the other. Commercialism was perhaps in part a way for the art world to alienate itself from its former preoccupation with people’s lives.

From our present vantage point, the history documented on 98 Bowery and Gallery 98 feels technologically distant. The making of life into a performance feels impossibly trite post-social media, and its utopic myopia seems naive against a more equitable and now truly international multi-culturalism. This period is truly impossible to define as it was a counter cultural way of working and holding space. Polymorphous and still largely not online, the ephemera and stories trace the contours of a culture that sometimes feels like a lost generation, whose import, promise, and connections with the present are still only beginning to be determined. As New York continues to give way to other cultural centers, the afterlife and staying power of its exuberant and unwieldy-networked spirit remain to be seen.

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