New York City in 1982 was a wild city. It was a vulgar, cruel and violent place seemingly without laws or rules or police. The city was living in the black and white television cool world of the 1950’s and the Burbank, California dramatic color television world at the same time. New York goons walked in pointed toe shoes, leather jackets and jewelry. Chelsea was where the Mafia threw away bodies, where transvestite hookers worked in daylight, and where you could see men pounding their love into each other on the docks. One of the clubs in the area was called Mineshaft. Time Square was a street gangsters paradise. Puerto Rican male hookers in wigs, high heels and lipstick worked 42nd street, while in the row of porno theaters showing whale sized cocks exploding everywhere. Rent boys polished off businessmen for cash before the briefcases went home to their suburban wives. There was a young white woman working as a prostitute dressed in the ragged Anne costume of a Broadway show phenom. She also had on the right wig and pancake makeup for the part. The billboard poster was nearby. She took her customers into the toilet stalls of the Port Authority Terminal Times Square bus station for her show and review.
We learned quickly that Brooklyn had only the most crude of supermarkets, so we drove to New Jersey for groceries. When we would drive across one of the bridges, as soon as we entered New Jersey, hookers would walk up to the cars and press their breasts against every car’s windows.
Down in Philadelphia, from where we had just moved, a visit across the bridge to Camden, New Jersey, would meet you with a total wasteland. Camden was called “Poonieland.” This was because it was assumed that the city had no industry, as Campbells Soup’s factory had closed. Every woman walking down a one-toothed street with a single occupied decrepit home, was considered to be a prostitute. In Brooklyn hookers worked by the Navy Yard in nothing but high heels. In Williamsburg, hookers sat in chairs at outdoor restaurants, taking their customers inside to back rooms to close the deal. On Lexington avenue in Manhattan, called “The Lex” back then, dozens of boxes were set up with persons playing 3-card Monte. As people walked by saying they wouldn’t dare play that crooked game, they did not realize that there was a larger game that were already playing: Pickpocket. The entire corridor was a runaway crime spree, in which countless people were pick-pocketed as their attention was diverted by the 3 card Monte dealers. Oh, by the way, this game was being played in a few dozen different languages.
I had two jobs while I was a student in the painting department at Pratt Institute. One was with the Veterans Administration as a file clerk. The other was in Pratt’s library during summer breaks. The V.A. building was like a vertical cave. Each person minded their own business and mechanically reviewed the Vietnam Era veterans files. Some files had death certificates in them. There were dozens of files on the desks of several of the clerks. The files had a calendar of actions and when they had to be taken by. They also had ticklers as reminders. I was well liked and was even offered a permanent position but declined. Looking back it reminded me of what Harvey Pekar, the famed comics author, said of his dead-to-the world file clerk job that he had in Cleveland.
I too was born in Cleveland.
There were almost no public restrooms in New York back then. The subways reeked of and endless spraying of piss of different men. I saw businessmen come out of office towers and literally piss like a small fire hose on the adjacent building. With their penis in hand, they would zip up and descend into the subway stations.
Soho was the cool world. It was where the art galleries were. West Broadway was the main artworld power corridor. Both Leo Castelli and Mary Boone galleries were on the corridor, opposite one another at 420 and 417 West Broadway. I remember seeing a guy wearing an amazing dark green bomber jacket. His jet black hair was lifted by the wind as he stopped to smoke a cigarette. We and other Pratt students would organize and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan for the Saturday evening art openings. We heard there was wine and cheese flown in from Paris for some of the art parties. There certainly was lots of free wine, cheese and beer, the latter of which we each would collect in our coat pockets and take home that night to enjoy.
The art world was still under the mesmerizing power of two alternative spaces: Artists Space and P.S.1. Being selected for a show at either space was to be given entry into the New York art market as an art star. Metro Pictures became one of the first new major contemporary galleries. It was run by the same people who had controlled Artists Space. I recall being quite surprised by the unfortunate state of P.S.1.’s building on my first visit. But I also recall being overwhelmed by the fact that an entire public school (Public School 1, in Queens, New York), had been commandeered for art exhibitions. Years later, in 1997, just after I received my graduate degree in Fine Art from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, I too would get to have my work shown at the most amazing artists space program in American cultural history. In 1997 P.S.1 reopened after a dramatic property upgrade. There were still 125,000 square feet of exhibition space, but the place looked absolutely fabulous, and there was this awesome enclosed courtyard. In that courtyard for that inaugural reopening show, we invited artists were treated fabulously with an array of upscale appetizers and drink. I will never forget this experience as it was my first time having my work as an artist celebrated by the New York artworld.
During the 1982-1984 era in the artworld, the word on the street was about Ne-Geo art. Peter Halley was a superstar with his grid and conduit paintings. He supposedly had a conceptual art reading group. The artworld was analyzing the real world through Halley’s work. The artworld was analyzing the world of Critical Theory through the paintings of Mark Tansay. Tansey was literally painting images that illustrated several of the arguments found in the leading theory ideas of the hour. The Germans – Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer, the Italians – including Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente, and the Cal Arts Mafia – David Salle, Eric Fischl, and crew, and The Whitney Program, whose star was a young Julian Schnabel were the other major art stars of the time. Appropriation was all the rage as well.. Richard Prince and Sherri Levine were in the front with this work. Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo were making leading work about identity construction and urban life. I don’t remember there being much of a discussion about Basquiat. I never heard about one of his openings. he seemed to be operating in a parallel artworld universe that only Andy Warhol was part of at the time.
Within a year of us moving to Chicago in the fall of 1984, the Conceptual Art wing of the East Village scene erupted from the rubble of burned out Alphabet City streets. The most powerful new artist run space in New York, International With Monument, was opened by artist Meyer Vaisman. The gallery launched Jack Goldstein’s career among others. Within the next two years almost all of the East Village’s 70 painting galleries would be closed or absorbed into Soho.
I had the pleasure of studying for an entire year with Jack Goldstein on a daily basis for an entire year. This happened when I entered Art Center’s MFA program in Pasadena in January of 1995. I remember being somewhat surprised when Jack told me exactly how his work was made by assistants. He saw himself in the role of artist as producer. As we know – up the road their would be an unreal rise in the use of fabricators to make art. Then just this year Carlson and Co., one of the major art fabricators for the New York artworld for two generations, would fold. Jack Goldstein hung himself after teaching at Art Center. He had a retrospective scheduled to be at MoCA in Los Angeles, which was cancelled when MoCA collapsed. The Orange County Museum of Art has taken the show and will debut it in 2012.
Several years after seeing shows of artists during 1982-1984, I would get to see the work again in California museum collections. The first of which was Eli Broad’s collection that was showcased at LACMA’s BCAM, which Broad paid for to be built. The second was at SFMoMA, where the recently acquired Fisher Collection was put on public display. We drove up to San Francisco from LA and truly enjoyed every aspect of the museum experience, from the collections to the best coffee in the country. Blue Bottle café in San Francisco is on the top floor of the museum as it deserves to be, as this San Francisco born jewel is the best in the country. The Blue Bottle café in the Mint is pure magic in a postmodern architectural setting.
“Bucolic Brooklyn,” as one of my painting department teachers called it in 1982, was an abandoned wreck. There were stores that sold rotten fish, and stores that sold only bone white soup bones. We bought our vegetables from a small market owned by a Russian woman at Emerson Place and Myrtle avenues. My wife and I lived in the married student housing apartment building on Emerson Place. The married students would often cook and eat together in the evenings after class. Often our entertainment was to walk to the Brooklyn Promenade and look at the starry Manhattan skyline at night.
When we moved to Brooklyn from Philadelphia to start at Pratt, we were told that the married student housing wasn’t going to be ready for a couple of weeks. We found a roach invested but otherwise charming Midtown Manhattan SRO, and parked our car on the street. My wife asked me to go downstairs and remove the expensive possessions we had in our car trunk. I said I would later and fell asleep. That would be a mistake from which we would not recover during our entire time in New York City. When I went downstairs to remove our possessions, I noticed that the trunk was open. Oh no please don’t be so. Everything inside it was gone. All of our best clothes, leather jackets, shoes, purses, studio equipment – were gone. There was some strange dark substance that was dripping from the rear license plate, which temporarily obscured the numbers, then they reappeared. I was livid. I walked down the street screaming and pleading to anyone who would listen. Did they see the people who stole what we had owned. The persons I met backed into the doorways as if they were ghosts. School then started and we moved into the student housing. We were stunned to hear that what had happened to us was an annual ritual event that the school knew would happen to the students, but did nothing to warn us about and actually laughed at us for being suckers. Students reported that family heirlooms were stolen from their off campus and on campus apartments on the day they moved in. Students reported that thieves had driven away with their full rental trucks with all of their possessions, in daylight and at night. None of us knew how dangerous, deadly and depraved a neighborhood that Pratt was in during that era. Fortunately all of us were fast learners to the situation and vowed to not be victimized again. We vowed to get the education we came to New York City for, and to get the fuck out of New York the moment we graduated from the school.
“Welcome to New York, sucka”
Once our classes were fully underway, we were all pretty happy that we had survived the first days and hung in there. Now we were getting the positive quality skill sets and experiences that we came to New York City for in the first place. Pratt’s campus at the time had a lone café where students met and talked. To buy or get the New York Times, we had to go to Manhattan. I would often find a copy of the Sunday edition in perfect condition, resting atop a large city owned trash can.
To entertain ourselves, we would walk into Chinatown in packs in the evenings. The food was good and cheap and fun, especially along Mott street. I remember going with my wife and being seated at a table with two other people, another of whom knew each other, on several occasions. No one seemed to mind this, as it seemed just one of those local to New York type of experiences, based on lack of personal space. I remember driving up from Philadelphia once and giving our leftover lemon chicken and rice dish to a young man who was upside down in a dumpster, his mouth full of food as he righted himself before our eyes. We often drove up from Philadelphia in 1981 through the summer of 1982, before moving to New York, and stayed up all night in the city and drove back to Philly in the late morning through small town, chemical factory haven industrial New Jersey. Coors beer had a mythic status during this time. One of my pals from school and I would stand in front of the beer distributorship in Brooklyn, sucking down Coors beers, as if they were the artisan beers of 2010.
During the first winter we lived in Brooklyn, I discovered that on Atlantic Avenue, down Bedford Avenue, through Bedford-Stuyvesant, that there were West Africans selling super low-priced vegetables. I walked down to where these stored were located. Each of them was operating out of an abandoned and burned-out storefront. I bought vegetables and took them home to make soup, which we shared with our classmates.
During that same winter I went to the closest open market to our apartment late one night. After shopping I started back across Dekalb Avenue towards Emerson Place. I heard a wild dog pack and stopped. The pack was drooling and starving, angry at the world that had abandoned them. They were looking to eat whatever was alive. They saw me and started walking towards me as a group. I realized that I had to run, and dropped the grocery bag over the cyclone fence. It was about six feet high and mangled across the top. I then hoisted myself over it as I heard the snap of several wolf-like dogs tear at the air. I could see that they were not going to give up. I moved my grocery bag to the furthest corner from where they tried to bite me, and left the bag there as they had already trotted around to where I was now standing. I walked back to the place I originally was standing inside the fenced in snow-covered open lot. I kicked the fence several times, further enraging the dogs as the leapt in the air and tried to come over it, but could not. While they were jumping, I turned and bolted to the opposite end of the park, which was at a diagonal to where I started and where my grocery bag was, then grabbed the bag, dropped it over the fence and leaped over it myself. I grabbed the bag and ran into the apartment building, just as the dog pack had turned the corner and made it within a hundred feet of the building. I made soup for dinner.
Another off our most fun and inexpensive experiences was going shopping for art supplies in Manhattan. None was more fantastic than shopping at Pearl Paint on Canal. It was a 4 story candy apple red paint covered building. I remember looking at drawing papers that were so well made and beautiful, that they seemed to not need a drawing; the paper alone was a work of art. There were art supply stores that still had tubes of paint from the Abstract Expressionist era of the 1950’s. There were custom paint producers, who charged off the chart prices for superior grades of painting supplies.
During my summer job at Pratt’s library, the woman working with me, who was a volunteer, invited me to her apartment to move books. She was a dainty and well spoken person. She read my short stories and said she enjoyed both them as well as talking to me about them. I thought she was a Miss-Lonely Hearts, and was shy and was using this opportunity to make company. She gave me the address, on the Central Park West in the West 70’s street blocks. She asked me to come by first on a Saturday, and said she would pay me $50. I showed up on time. The entire block looked as if it had gotten a manicure. I was met with a hand in my chest by the Latina maid. The library volunteer woman called out my name and came to the door and greeted me. I was in disbelief as I walked into her home. It was all three floors and it was palatial. It traversed one city block, say 73rd street, to 74th street. She thanked me for coming by and showed me to a huge bedroom. This is where she wanted the books in the vast shelving above it to be moved to another part of the house. She was an art collector and had been going to art museum shows since the 1950’s. She had more than one copy of many of the exhibition catalogs she had. She gave me copies of each of these as she saw them.
Her husband, who was a law firm partner, came home with a bag of sandwiches from Zabars. She invited me to meet him and eat at their dinner table and talk. She described what I was working on as a writer and an artist, and said she was intrigued by what I was doing. Her husband said he liked what he was hearing. She then told me that she had five graduate degrees, including one in film studies from NYU. This explained the film study screening room in her home. I eagerly ate the sandwich and enjoyed their company. Their daughter came home then. She had just returned from the Vienna Riding Academy, and was about to go to school in Boston. The daughter was about eighteen. She wanted to show me more of the house and gave me a tour. She showed me her bedroom. It was covered with glowing stars. She had a view of the Manhattan skyline too. We returned downstairs and I gathered the many catalogs given to me, then returned to our apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on Pratt’s campus. I returned twice more to move books. When the summer ended I never saw any of this Central Park West family again.
There was a building in Fort Greene, Brooklyn that I walked by regularly on my way to the market. I called it the Hollywood Squares building because the facade and windows were missing, yet the building was fully occupied. Every argument, fight, bad situation, distress call for help, cursing out, or plea to not be thrown into the streets, could be heard as I walked by. The wind mildly blew the curtains in the windows that were covered.
I remember wishing that I had gotten to grow up in New York as verses in Cleveland. After living in Brooklyn in the 1980’s, those thoughts disappeared. New York was the twilight zone and planet of crime unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. I recall saying that the city was depraved and deprived. Now of course its the most fun and exciting place in the country for well-heeled adults to play.
New York City in 2010 is a place where all the historic down low street life has been swept away, which has allowed it to become an exclusive playland for the rich This is in many persons view the reason the rise of the LA Artworld was able to happen, even though New York had almost all the money and museums and cultural apparatus. While no one is of the belief that the wealthy who are actually talented cannot produce culture, as there is too much evidence of this, New York has shut itself off to all forms of cultural futures because of this unbelievable transformation that has blocked the entry of the young and broke into the city though impossible rent prices. New York was heavily working class, but it also was a city of elites, where the average person with exceptional talents could find stardom and critical success because New York was the platform for all of those overlapping universes of activity, from modern dance to experimental music and experimental films, to modern operas and experimental theater companies, to the artworld and all of its manifestations.
L&M Arts has decided to expand into representing living contemporary artists. It decided to open in Los Angeles because LA has “a creative energy comparable to what happened in the ‘50s in New York,” Levy says.” New York shouldn’t sleep on this. Look what happened to the Paris artworld when New York City came to power.
Read what Werner Herzog said about Los Angeles. ‘Los Angeles is raw, uncouth and bizarre, but it’s a place of substance. It has more new horizons than any other place.“ – Werner Herzog
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. He has recently been named a 2010 United States Artists Project artist