NEW YORK — A lot has changed in Manhattan’s southern reaches since 1980: SoHo’s once bohemian landscape has been overtaken by luxury retailers like Louis Vuitton and Chanel, and tourists are trekking to the Lower East Side for Michelin-starred cuisine.
But it wasn’t always easy street. Two simultaneous, linked art exhibitions opening tonight — “The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984” and “Anarchy to Affluence: Design in New York 1974-1984,” at New York University and Parsons The New School for Design, respectively — revisit and revel in the gritty period when the likes of the Ramones ruled the East Village and Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” scared off visitors who were faint of heart.
Even the artists of the time, many of whom have also gentrified, have pushed the period to the recesses of their memory. “I sent everyone scurrying through their storage facilities looking for things they haven’t looked at in 30 years,” says Carlo McCormick, guest curator of “The Downtown Show.”
“I was asking superfamous artists for a really relatively obscure body of work they did long before they were famous. For Julian Schnabel I got this monstrous painting he did of a dead dog,” says McCormick.
That work hangs alongside pieces by icons like Cindy Sherman, Vito Acconci, Kiki Smith, Nan Goldin and Gordon Matta-Clark at NYU’s exhibit, which spans both the Grey Art Gallery and the Fales Library. This marks the first time the university has collaborated with Parsons to mount a project together. They’ve also produced “The Downtown Book” (Princeton University Press), and the exhibits will next make stops at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Austin Museum of Art in Texas.
The ambitious shows, which begin with the 1974 enactment of the Loft Law (opening up SoHo’s industrial spaces to artists) and conclude with President Reagan’s reelection, showcase a range of media, including paintings, music, photographs, dance, posters, fashion design and furniture.
“In terms of design, 1974 is the true end of the Sixties and the beginning of the cynicism; 1984 is the beginning of the digital age,” says Christopher Mount, Parsons director of exhibitions and public programs, and the curator of the “Anarchy” show.
“It was such a dynamic and freaky time,” adds McCormick. “Culturally it falls between these two monumental moments: minimalism beforehand and then this enshrinement of post-modernism in the mid-Eighties. It’s the unorthodoxy that falls between the orthodoxies.”
That spirit was tied to New York itself, points out Mount, adding, “The design of the period reflects New York and the cliché of New York: its resourcefulness and cynicism. You had Norma Kamali making things out of paper.” That very desire to co-opt and recycle, whether it be in the Xeroxed cutouts of a punk poster or a sweatshirt dress, meant the pieces were themselves disposable and locating survivors was difficult. Appropriately, the many Stephen Sprouse sketches on view at Parsons were rescued by an alumna from a dumpster outside Sprouse’s apartment. The actual garments, like a Kamali parachute skirt and Sprouse graffiti pants, are on loan from NoLIta store Resurrection, as well as various private collectors.
For NYU’s exhibition, McCormick, a denizen of the downtown scene, simply called up his many friends. “I was there. If I didn’t do drugs with every single one of them, it was probably only a degree of separation of friendship,” he jokes. “I know everyone’s phone number, and I know where the bodies are buried.” The show he produced, therefore, “is not very academic in the standard sense. It’s not chronological,” he says.
Instead, to preserve the energy and ethos of the time, it’s divided into eight themes, with music playing in the rooms and works hung in the more casual salon style, stacked four or five high on the walls.
“At the time, at an opening of an exhibition, you wanted to stay away from the paintings, not because they were really expensive and you didn’t want to damage them, but because if you got too close, the paint was still wet,” says Lynn Gumpert, director of NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. “Artists weren’t afraid to really go out on a limb and take risks because the stakes weren’t that high. The stakes are very high now.”
Some lament the passing of that time. “Downtown was a community,” says McCormick. “There was a familiarity with everyone there. Now there is not that easy fluidity and compression that you had. Not only has downtown been developed a lot, but all those vacant lots are now skyscrapers. You are sharing your neighborhood with a bunch of NYU students or stockbrokers. But most people are happy they have their rent-stabilized apartments and are still here and still alive, you know, in respect to everyone else in the show.”