When I called the holly Solomon Gallery in SoHo in 1997 to ask about their 1985 East Village show, the man who answered the phone was aghast. "What are you doing?" he asked incredulously. "Nobody talks about the East Village anymore, nobody. People are taking it off their resumes." After several years of conducting research, I had come to expect this kind of response. My informants often laughed at the very idea of writing a doctoral dissertation on the East Village art scene of the '80s. At the same time, they sized up its promotional potential. Was I writing a book? When would it be published? Nobody was talking, but everyone had a story to tell.
Though I'm an outsider, I have my own East Village story. In 1986 I visited my friend Sheila Hoban, who worked at the Frick Art Reference Library and put up exhibitions in her apartment on Second Avenue. It was Valentine's Day. A light snow was falling when we set out for an evening of gallery hopping, I in a borrowed green sequined dress and a pair of spike heels from a secondhand store on East Seventh Street. We went to Macyn Bolt's opening at Hal Bromm on Avenue A. Bolt, a sculptor who lived and worked under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, had made wall-mounted figures of carved and painted Styrofoam, but the main attraction was a man named Mr. Sexy, who was peddling his newsletter of exhibition reviews at the door. We roamed the streets from one opening to the next, then made an appearance at Kamikaze before ending up at a party for Bolt at a collector's condo near Westbeth.
Thinking back on that night, on the crash of happy people about my age who packed the galleries, I remember the air of excitement, as if the East Village were the epicenter of the art world. (I also recall that the bathrooms and closets at the condo were crammed with people snorting cocaine.) The next day a gallery worker (at Vox Populi?) pestered me about buying one of the paintings then on display (I can't recall the artist's name or even what the work looked like). They were forty dollars apiece during a one-day-only sale, cash and carry. Though I didn't buy anything, I was mightily impressed by the style of the scene - the open avenues of possibility, the frontier mentality, the aggressiveness of the sales pitch, the self-representation, the unpretentiousness of it all. This, I thought, was quintessentially American. I admired the way that these artist-entrepreneurs openly traded on the intertwined fortunes of art, entertainment, and commerce, which had covertly defined the Western art world since the late nineteenth century.
I returned to Washington and my job at the Smithsonian and forgot about the East Village until I needed a topic for a graduate seminar in 1990. My research grew from a fairly simple question: What exactly happened to that vibrant scene?
The man I talked with at Holly Solomon had shown his paintings in the East Village at Civilian Warfare. He said I wouldn't know his name, and he was right. He was one of the thousands of participants who now look back and wonder what happened. How could a cultural phenomenon that generated a mountain of positive press and launched hundreds of art-world careers have become so passe? How could the art of the East Village, which had once engendered so many gallery and museum shows, not to mention feature articles and reviews in the art magazines, now be dismissed in its entirety? How could something once thought to be so good become something so bad that artists were expunging it from their resumes?
According to Jeff Perrone, writing in the December 1984 issue of Arts Magazine, the East Village was "unavoidable dinner topic numero uno" in the New York art world of the mid-'80; a decade later there was silence. When I interviewed artist and editor Walter Robinson in 1994 in his office at Art in America, he closed the door as if fearing his colleagues would overhear him. "This is embarrassing," he began. …