October 2007, Shana Nys Dambrot Interviews Paul Laster and Carlo McCormick During the Whitehot Magazine Festival, New York 2007
When Noah Becker let me know that the magazine’s launch would coincide with the new season of art openings in NYC and center around the East Village and Lower East Side (currently on the verge of experiencing a renaissance in contemporary art activity), I couldn’t think of any better pair of mavens to ask about the legacy of these vital, edgy neighborhoods, and the implications thereof for the coming generation. After all, Paul Laster is the editor of Artkrush.com, art and photography editor at Boldtype.com, a contributing editor to Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing photojournalist to Artnet.com. He worked as an artist and independent curator, exhibiting work and organizing numerous shows in the East Village in the 1980s. And Carlo McCormick is a popular culture critic and curator living in New York City and the author of numerous books, monographs and catalogues on contemporary art and artists. His writing has appeared in Aperture, Art in America, Art News, Artforum, Camera Austria, High Times, Spin, Tokion, Vice and countless other magazines and he is Senior Editor of Paper magazine.
I couldn’t have asked for anything better than what followed…
SND- The context of this [mini-festival for Whitehot Magazine] going on in the Lower East Side right now, and that all the interest that is happening here right now feels a lot like the old days here again. Sort of like Lower East Village that is just a couple of blocks down this way. So it’s all happening now, and everyone is excited. It’s the new thing, but there’s a lot of it that is still the old thing and people only in the last couple of years have really started looking back at the old thing, and, you know sort of seriously now. I guess there was that Artforum issue a few years ago that was good, but incomplete and -- you know all that -- and now people are sort of really delving back into it; and that’s coinciding with all this art moving back into this part of town and so…in investigating that I thought, could I think of two better people than the two of you to just think a little bit about that. You were both there, you know the first time and you’re here this time and you know does it feel the same? Does it feel different? Who else besides you guys has navigated both generations and this part of town and stayed here? There is really something special that goes on in this little continuum. And of course all these things are related and you two saw a lot of it first-hand and did it yourselves in the first place. So, with that said I just want to have a conversation about all of this. Old friend style. I think it’d be nice for people to hear.
CM- Yeah, we can talk. My first instinct is that with everything going on now there is the Howl Festival, which is concurrent with this.
CM- Yeah Howl. It’s a kind of massive celebration of what the East Village used to be. And I have to be really careful for myself for my own psyche and for whatever audience we may have, to be really resistant to the forces of nostalgia. New York has always had that. I don’t care when people get here- they are basically told that they just missed it.
CM- So you know we thought that we missed something and now some people thought that what we did they missed. A lot of the people who are deciding to get into some sort of mode of cultural enterprise in this neighborhood, in the Lower East Side, again are probably doing it for reasons that have very little to do with what the M.O. [modus operandi] was in the Eighties.
PL- The reason for people moving to the Lower East Side now is because of the New Museum’s arrival. It’s been anticipated for a couple of years. In some regards, it’s too bad that Dan Cameron is no longer at the New Museum because he was the curator that organized the East Village show. He was also involved with the Artforum issue that you mentioned; but as a result of the show being Dan’s point of view, there were some artists who felt that they had been left out, because Dan didn’t favor their work.
CM- Well, Dan’s show and the Artforum double issue were… they both spoke to where they were coming from; they were actually more a market registration and people were angry about what wasn’t included. And what was left out was the alternative scene and those kind of things. And it’s funny because the market is gonna push that and then Academia is where there’s more interest in non-commercial practices- in the alternative history and the alternative spaces and those kinds of things, like Julie Alt’s book.
PL- I don’t know if you remember this fact, but Pat Hearn did a show about the East Village around 1993, when her gallery was in SoHo. It was so close to the time of the actual East Village scene—maybe 10 years after the emergence of the East Village as a force in the art world—that nobody really paid any attention to it other than some Europeans, who thought it was really cool.
CM- I would say by a decade. <laughter>
SND- Yeah by then it was already this kind of nostalgic past but to me it was still the first, maybe it was like the dying fire but it was still the first fire. It was the way, way end of it I just didn’t know it at the time. But then it took another year to go “this is so over”.
CM - You know it’s funny that you say that Pat (Hearn) did that because actually…
SND- Did you see that show?
CM- No. Actually I don’t remember it. If the East Village helped anyone, whatever help they got in the end was like twice as much of a stigma and the few people that managed to transcend the East Village and have real substantial careers afterwards basically had to Stalinize their past and Pat very much did that. I mean I remember she used to perform at this club I worked at called Club 57, I remember her first shows were at this little gallery called New Math and she had two different galleries in the East Village. When Pat died they called me up, “Carlo do you have ephemera from that time?” and I go, “yeah I probably got all this Pat Hearn invites and stuff like that.” And they go, “good, because Pat doesn’t have any of it.” All of her files. Pat literally tossed her entire records of everything she did during the East Village.
SND- Oh my god. As part of that wall process you were talking about? Re-education?
PL- That’s what happened with the East Village. It started as a dynamic scene of independent people creating their own alternative to SoHo. The aesthetic was different. SoHo had gone through the conceptual art, minimalism, post minimalism, pattern and decoration, and Neo-Expressionism. In some regards, the East Village in the early days was related to Neo-Expressionism, but there was also a lot of cartoon, and DIY art. When the East village collapsed, it was absorbed back by SoHo. Broadway was opened up for development and most of the significant galleries moved back into the fold, or closed because their artist-founders had become successful in their own right. The East Village had become so popular that rents had gone up. Galleries could get equal dollar per square foot on Broadway and be part of the bigger art market.
PL-They turned their back on being alternative and then joined the establishment. A lot of the East Village gallery spaces had previously been shoe repair shops, laundromats, meat markets, and bodegas.
CM – More like boutiques or restaurants, some bars, but if you are gonna look for the commonalities the really sad thing is basically all these migratory sort of things are about real estate and the economic realities and yes the New Museum is an easy magnet which you can hang a new neighborhood on, but talking to some of the people who are moving down here like … well, <motioning to Paul> I don’t even know what that public is. is that alright to say …you keep track of that …
PL- Like Salon 94 Freemans?
CM- Oh I understand that Hudson doesn’t like to be… he is a pretty private figure... he doesn’t care a whit about being a part of some new neighborhood trend. He just found his rent tripling and he found down here he can get a much more beautiful space for much cheaper…
SND- for now.
CM- for now, yeah whatever…..
SND- it’s true, I’ve been staying with friends on Ludlow for 13 or 14 years or something like that -- and in the beginning people would be getting stabbed on Ludlow Street. And now is the capital of the $1200 hand bag.
CM- but the one anchor for Ludlow Street, and in my mind in the 90’s, the most significant and ongoing art project of the Lower East Side including the fact that Alleged Gallery started right next to there, has to be MAX FISH.
SND- Oh sure!
CM- Which has an opening on Sunday. There were some great artists that had some amazing shows from such a solid tradition.
SND – the first story I ever wrote was about Max Fish.
CM- Ulli, who owns that place, worked at Tin Pan Alley, where some other chicks used to work, like Nan Goldin. Max Fish has Collab roots that run really deep. So if you want to see what was always really good and is still good, go there.
SND- no, it’s true.
CM- And it’s better than any other gallery that is hanging a shingle out there.
CM – I didn’t mean to be that harsh.
SND- I knew when you started that. I knew you were going to say Max Fish it’s just because it’s…There is no real word you can kind of use that doesn’t subvert itself; the words you want to use are authentic, you know there is an integrity and authenticity that goes on there. To say that bar changed my life is an understatement. And it had a lot to do with what was on the wall. I’d never seen anything really like that.
CM – They leave the lights on so you can actually see what is on the wall and they still do. 90% of the staff are working artists.
SND- Yeah and it is kind of amazing that it is still there.
PL - To wax nostalgically for a little bit… the East Village was fun.
CM – it was fun
PL - It was especially fun at the openings. The galleries were basically store fronts, where the openings would spill out onto the sidewalk. You would run into everybody on the sidewalk and then you would go into the gallery. And there were crazy shows such as Sensory Evolution’s “Beach” show, where gallery owner Steven Styles covered the floor of a summer group show in six-inches of sand
CM – Gracie loved all kind of crazy shtick that way, but what I think what I mean in terms of just measuring that beyond the fact like unlike SoHo or Chelsea you could still buy heroin on the street during that time which, uh, definitely can alter the psycho-chemistry of the scene. That was one of the large things that all the galleries in the East Village scene did independently and collectively, that what one of the ways they distinguished themselves from the 57th Street or SoHo or any other place where galleries were. It was not a white wine scene… everyone served hard liquor. The openings were like… they spent so much money on vodka and stuff like that and they poured such ginormous portions it was a drunken brawl.
SND - That’s amazing.
PL – The paintings were often still wet at the opening. It was bohemian. I remember being at an opening and seeing paint on everyone’s sleeve and then talking to the artist and saying, “is that from your painting” <chuckles> and he said, “Yeah, I just finished it today”<chuckling>. The spaces were so small that when it was crowded in there, there was no way that you wouldn’t be touching the work.
SND - Is it bad of me to wish that that was still going on? is that nostalgic? Or do we need that? Is there a way we can get it back do you think?
CM - Yes it is nostalgic, it is like me wishing I was still young.
SND - Is there anywhere in the world where this still goes on?
PL – It is returning now in these new spaces…
CM- I’m not sure
PM - on the Lower East Side
SND – I was suspicious
PL- They’re so small that that you get that same type of feeling.
CM- That was a nice thing and that was a tough thing that happened with Chelsea even though I hated what happened on Broadway. I just thought it would turn into a mall and just ride up and down in an elevator seeing galleries, but scale change… in Chelsea scale is so much larger, and the nice thing about smaller galleries is that art is brought down to an inherently domestic scale and a lot of the critique about the East Village, some very malicious but some fine, probably not wrong, is that it was ultimately feeding a very lower end bourgeois kind of like clientele, it wasn’t really serious collectors. And of course that was its downfall. Sometimes it’s not about selling art but who bought it and if they’re actually on the board of a museum. So …
So art will be brought down to a domestic scale I think that some of the fun stuff that you are talking about paintings still wet or some of the stylistic aspects that Paul alludes to that the more rough expressionistic less rendered stuff as well as the cartoony aspects in the kind of broad-based infantalism that was that the East Village was relatively, relatively, democratic. And inclusive. And I do not think that people can really do business in this day and age with that kind of level of risk of failure. I mean you can’t really be a gallery today and mount a show as shitty as an East Village show could have been. I thought that was the brilliance of the East Village. That ……
SND – That is a really good point. I like that.
CM - That the people were really allowed to fail.
PL - Yeah they were, and there were a lot of them.
CM - The market very rarely allows failure to the degree that was allowed at that time. And that’s vital. And I do not think that is gonna be recaptured here. Maybe in Berlin it is…
PL – Yes, it’s happening in Berlin—very much so—because it is a do-it-yourself artist scene. One of the other interesting things about the East Village was that with the rise of the galleries there was a rise of club scenes. Places like Limbo Lounge and 8BC engaged performance art. You really had some wacko stuff, a Neo-Dada type of spirit of performance art going on. Life Cafe used to do put things on --
CM – and Pyramid
PL- Pyramid was one great spot!
CM- Pyramid and those spots were seminal ones for allowing that. That was a continuation of something that had been happening in downtown for really, at least from the 60’s on; it was a very small scene. It wasn’t that long ago that you could fit the entire art world into one room. And that room would be in New York. The thing was if it was the same 300 people going out every night, of those 300 people some were painters some were musicians some were performance artists some were underground filmmakers, which was a really big thing for the longest time. You know it doesn’t have a marketability so it doesn’t get preserved so much like in history nobody is talking about the cinema of transgression or some of the things like that that were kind of healthy for the artist but that ended in a lot of ways in New York.
One of the things that is difficult and still needs to be negotiated is the kind of ghettoization and a compartmentalization of different modes and cultural production that goes on. The theatre people really just hang out with theatre people. That performance art, video art and digital artists just don’t hang out with each other in some fashion and art thing. It’s kind of like everyone is going to a different restaurant now. It’s not one club where they all hang out in, but I wouldn’t say that is a loss for the East Village. I would say that is actually something that inherently happened in our culture during the 80’s.
SND – No it is true and I do remember people just like Jason Rhodes before he died with the Black Pussy thing in LA. Everybody was so blown away and you were kind of like yes it was fantastic fun, yes there is nothing rushing in to fill that void, but it was just as though people had never thought of such a thing. “You mean a room full of bohemian types deliberately getting drunk and getting into arguments about art, making art and maybe setting some of it on fire.?! Who are you people?!” It was like this crazy wonderment and I just remember thinking that in New York was like that all the time. It is interesting that in the book that you [Carlo] were talking about today that you had to be there for the talk, and then the show at the Getty that I wrote about this week called Evidence of Movement where they have collected and they are exhibiting the kind of detritus and artifacts of these non-commercially engaged inter-media experimental things -- which there’s almost no way for them to succeed in that, but of course they have to try at the Research Institute, that is what they do.
CM- Yeah I am a fetishist for ephemera.
PL- Your downtown show at NYU revealed it. I remember being amazed at seeing invitations from early Mapplethorpe shows.
CM- yeah it had the invitation for his first show, in ’73, which was a Polaroid he made.
SND – Yeah you just want to put that in a mylar folder under the bed and you can just know that it is there forever
PL- I bet you are (motioning to Carlo) just like me. You keep every invite and poster from Deitch Projects shows….
CM – No I am not an archivist anymore. And I barely can hold onto the shit I am responsible for now. The people who are good at that have room!
SND – when would you say that your archive ends?
CM - Right now I am just trying to keep my own written archive together. That is actually now worth something. Because I am slowly becoming a sort of historical figure because unlike the rest of my generation I didn’t die. So I am like the one pathetic one to remember all the cool beautiful freaks who are not here with us anymore…Ethyl Eichelberger or David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, Luis Frangella-- these incredible people who were here and all of these things they fostered and Allen Ginsberg and all of this cross generational stuff and all of these guys, Gregory Corso, they were all here and they were all part of it… I won’t even start trying to list the entire punk rock generation which is still there you know. Richard Hell still in the same spot. Basically if you could find a phone book from 1979 you’ve basically got Phillip Glass’ home number. You got everyone and everyone has still got the same number now!
SND - That is pretty fantastic.
CM - By now everybody’s answering machines are dying so you can actually get them to pick up the phone.
PL – You know, as interested as I am in this new boom in the Lower East Side, I also anticipate that once the newness is over that it will be absorbed back again by Chelsea or by whatever other force is bigger than this scene, because…….
CM - you are attributing a lot of newness and I am not sure where the novelty ends or where the actual innovativeness and invention begins… because I am not sure changing your address really changes your aesthetic that much. I don’t buy into it, I don’t buy what is going to be happening here is going to be that significantly different.
PL - I don’t see the newness as being an aesthetic newness. I also agree that the newness is a real estate newness. What will probably happen is that after two years of making a new art scene everyone’s rent will go up. Most of these galleries are storefronts with no storage or back rooms. Once a show ends, if they didn’t sell the work, then they have to try to take collectors to studios. It’s very difficult to stay alive under those circumstances. The outstanding artists will make a name for themselves in this new realm and then they will want more. The only way galleries will keep their artists and perpetuate business is by moving back into the larger marketplace, which at this moment in time is Chelsea.
SND – Yeah I guess we will see what happens…Thank you guys. That is the perfect place to end a great conversation.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief