The Museum of Modern Art felt like a class reunion of the downtown demimonde Tuesday night, as scenesters of the ’80s East Village packed in for a party to celebrate the opening of “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983.”
Just like the club that Ann Magnuson, Susan Hannaford, and Tom Scully ran in the basement of a Polish church at 57 St. Marks Place, this exhibit was below street level, in the museum’s Titus galleries. There, you’ll find the work of Club 57’s most famous regular, Keith Haring. The cartoon he painted onto the door of a cabinet owned by drag queen Joey Arias, who attended Tuesday’s preview, is being shown for the first time.
But it was Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Closet that was the center of attention Tuesday. As Scharf posed for photos amidst his day-glo detritus, he noted that the curtained-off, blacklit play pen was smaller than others he had created over the past decades, including the one he kept in his former Bushwick studio.
How does he make them? “I try to shove in as much as possible,” Scharf said.
Likewise, the exhibit has tried to shove in as much of Club 57’s ephemera as possible. “The idea is that you’re in the club, an evocation of the club,” curator Sophie Cavoulacos said during a talk on Tuesday.
Club 57, she said, represented a “transitional moment” where the art scene was moving away from Soho lofts and toward the East Village tenaments. Art mixed freely with socializing: “Drinking, dancing, music, cruising– any of these things could happen in and around the artwork,” Cavoulacos said.
Even film screenings were interactive. Attendees were “encouraged to yell back at the screen, to interrupt it, to fool around during the screenings,” said curator Ron Magliozzi.
Attendees of the MoMA exhibition are presumably welcome to do the same as movies play on a screen located in the center of the show, much like it was at Studio 57. Week two will be dedicated to Haring’s films, including one where he paints himself into a corner. Week three will feature films shot in East Village apartments. Other programs will spotlight theatrical opera performer Klaus Nomi (week five), Scharf (week six), and randy cabaret star John Sex (week eight). You can see the detailed lineup here.
Three film series will also show in a separate theater adjacent the show. The first, running through February, will feature the midnight movies that played at Club 57 (think Russ Meyer, Buñuel, and Warhol); the second, from Dec. 1 to April 1, will focus on No Wave and Cinema of Transgression auteurs such as Nick Zedd, Amos Poe, and Richard Kern; and a third, in the spring of 2018, will be dedicated to the British punk scene.
During Tuesday’s preview party, the theater was nearly empty as artists featured in the show mingled amidst their work. M. Henry Jones, an East Village fixture and 3-D artist, was spotted near some of the cut-out photos he used to create a short animated film for “Soul City” by the Fleshtones, a precursor to music videos.
Magnuson, whose archive was the bedrock of the exhibit, was also on hand. Earlier during the day, at the curator talk, she described her days at Club 57 as “finding a tribe and finding a way to survive in an environment that was not very hospitable.” In the lobby gallery, a grid of tabloid covers speaks to the crime and financial woes that plagued New York. In addition to all that, mainstream culture was “suffocating for women,” Magnuson said. “Downtown was a place for women and gay men and people who were bi or whatever they were; you could find your people and you could do what you wanted to do creatively, on your own terms. And everybody encouraged each other to do that.”
Magnuson grew emotional and her voice cracked as she described the effect of AIDS on her “big family” of fellow creatives. The Club 57 community’s latest loss, just this week, is that of Richard Hambleton. One of his trademark “shadowman” silhouettes dominates a wall at the far end of the exhibit.
Other departed Club 57 regulars include John Sex, the outsized cabaret performer. His silkscreen posters advertising his “Acts of Live Art” performance series is the first thing you see after you pass MoMA’s sign informing that “this exhibition contains imagery that may not be suitable for all viewers.” Other flyers advertise appearances by John Cage, the Bush Tetras, The Misfits, and the seminal “Beyond Words” graffiti exhibit, credited with bridging the gap between uptown and downtown culture.
As a gay man whose stage act combined prop penises and a backup band called the Bodacious TaTas, John Sex clearly liked to have fun with gender and sexuality. Those themes emerged when the curators began combing through the videos that played at the club, as well. “We saw that all the films, even the gore films, and the sleaze films, they’re all about gender,” said Magliozzi. “They’re all about body modification and identity and changing identity.”
A page pulled from grindhouse journal Sleazoid Express advertises the “Other Sexes” film festival at Club 57, featuring Male, Ladies, and Transsexual nights. A collage created by Haring combines clippings about “the diseases of gay men,” a letter to Ann Landers from a teenager who’s worried about his bestiality tendencies, and advice on whether to get a male or female poodle. (The piece is a sort of physical manifestation of the “neo-dada poems” Haring would read at Club 57.) Photo portraits by Marcus Leatherdale depict female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon and drag queen Divine. A xeroxed photo by Henny Garfunkel depicts graffiti that proclaims, “All govts sell out lesbians.” A cheeky dating questionnaire created by Magnuson asks: “Do you prefer to a) swing b) solicit c) swap d) slobber e) remain celibate.”
The exhibit concludes with a monologue, filmed by video artist Tom Rubnitz, in which David Wojnarowicz tears into the government’s indifference to AIDS. “The anger in that video feels like we felt in the period,” Magliozzi said. “And I’ve seen AIDS things done in recent times that don’t seem angry enough to me.”
“When AIDS hit it was doubly hard for us,” Magnuson said. “We lost many wonderful people who we can see now in the videos [featured in the exhibit].” Magnuson described the show as a testament to these performers, and said she hoped it would “inspire younger people to go to a cheaper place to live and have the creative freedom that we had.”