A black-and-white illustration by David Wojnarowicz, on view last week at Chelsea gallery ClampArt, shows a grim reaper descending with a large scythe. The reaper claims to be “Democracy At Work,” but freely slices through individuals and activists voicing concerns like “No healthcare,” “Killer cops,” “Corrupt politicians,” and “Unemployment.” Though the piece was created in 1990, this so-called democracy keeps on wounding today.
“Continuum” is a term used by two curators who’ve recently organized exhibitions of art created amidst and in response to the AIDS epidemic in New York City. Both exhibitions provide a peek into the artistic scenes, subcultures, and venues that cultivated community in NYC during this time. Though the disease is no longer a death sentence and most of the venues have shut their doors, it remains true that radical havens for the marginalized often have a short and uncertain lifespan.
Screaming in the Streets: AIDS, Art, Activism focuses on the many radical art, performance, and nightlife spaces associated with New York’s queer community in the ’80s and ’90s. Presented by ClampArt and archival service Ward 5B, the show has a vast amount of text-based material on view, uniquely outnumbering more “formal” art like photographs or paintings. The curator, Greg Ellis, sees his show as a continuation of the many exhibitions done on art and AIDS, with the goal of “[illustrating] the intimacy of the downtown underground art community, the radical spaces they inhabited and the heavy losses that were endured.”
Much of the work in Screaming in the Streets comes from Ellis’s personal archives. “I came of age during the height of the epidemic and wanted to share the items that decorated the studio apartments, lofts and hotel walls of myself and friends. Our personal spaces were decorated/littered with memorial flyers, activist posters from marches and demonstrations along with the photography and artwork of friends,” he says. “The gallery and current exhibition reflects those spaces.”
Amidst work by David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Ethyl Eichelberger, Jack Smith, and others, there’s a wide range of flyers for long-gone clubs like Danceteria, Crisco Disco, plus gallery openings, benefit shows, film screenings, male burlesque revues, political protests, candlelight vigils, anti-Reagan and Bush declarations and more. Placing these archival materials alongside pieces of fine art elevates them and gives them a tangibly emotional quality.
Love Among The Ruins: 56 Bleecker Gallery and Late 80s New York takes a similar focus, but zeroes in on 56 Bleecker Gallery, an art space and cultural hub right outside the East Village that showed work by artists like David LaChapelle, Greer Lankton, Nan Goldin, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, plus a wide array of more underground names. Many of the artists affiliated with the gallery (including its co-owner, Dean Rolston) have been claimed by AIDS, while others remain alive today. Susan Martin, who curated the retrospective alongside 56 Bleecker’s gallery director Bill Stelling and the artist Maynard Monrow, felt that having the exhibition now was particularly timely, as many of her peers from that era have recently begun to pass away due to factors like age.
“The art world has changed so much, and I think one gets a feeling from this show of that camaraderie, when art was not so professionalized,” Martin explains. “The other part of this is, [in] 1988, the economy crashed. All the speculators, young hedge fund guys, stopped buying. So a lot of these artists were left by the wayside and I thought it was important that they be seen now.”
Nowadays, the internet and social media acts as an automatic archive for even the smallest cultural happenings. This was not the case several decades ago, making these particular exhibitions even more crucial. Martin, who previously did PR for places like the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge, tells me that before this exhibit one would be hard-pressed to find any online records of 56 Bleecker or the lesser-known artists claimed by AIDS who showed work there. Just by organizing and publicizing this exhibition, that’s beginning to change, with Google results shifting and platforms like Visual AIDS’s record of artists with HIV/AIDS expanding.
Though these shows provide a valuable peek into the past, neither Ellis nor Martin are of the opinion that the city has utterly lost its soul now that these spaces and people are gone.
Ellis believes that the culture created by Caffe Cino and other East Village radical queer spaces “in many ways came to an end with the hyper-gentrification of the five boroughs” and with increased housing prices, debt accumulation, and the generation gap AIDS created. However, he sees today’s activism as a modern manifestation of a similar spirit, listing groups like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Gays Against Guns as admirable groups.
“The current neoliberal politics that were espoused by Reagan and more fully realized by subsequent administrations have created a climate of inequality where radical politics and activism are once again more relevant,” he adds.
“Things have changed, but we definitely didn’t want this to be nostalgia for a small group. I’m older, it’s true, but … I don’t feel for one second like the city is any less vibrant,” Martin declares. “What are you gonna do, not make art? Every generation comes up against something. We all do. And the truth is, you find a community and you go for it.”
“Love Among The Ruins: 56 Bleecker Gallery and Late 80s New York” is on view through October 7 at Howl! Happening, 6 East 1st Street.
ClampArt’s “Screaming in the Streets: Art, AIDS, Activism” was on view through September 23; a selection of the works on view can be found here.