When the East Village Defined the Art Scene
The East Village has its fair share of contemporary-art galleries: 212 Arts, specializing in “urban art”; Art Angler, dedicated to Spanish artists; Fortnight Institute; Turn Gallery; Umbrella Arts… But in the early 1980s, the East Village was the heart and soul of the cutting-edge art scene, not just within New York or even the United States but arguably for the much of the world.
Creative types gravitated to the East Village throughout the second half of the 20th century for the same reason they would migrate to Williamsburg and Long Island City several decades later: affordable rents. By the mid-1970s the East Village was incubating the New York punk scene. Blondie, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Television were gigging and residing here. And because the music and art worlds have long been closely intertwined—the Talking Heads, for instance, who were also denizens of the East Village, met at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design—artists and gallerists who shared the iconoclastic attitude as the punks moved to the neighborhood as well. These artists saw themselves as the antithesis of the glossy SoHo scene.
In 1981 dancer and underground actress Patti Astor partnered with art dealer Bill Stelling to open the first gallery of the nascent East Village art scene, FUN Gallery. During its four-year existence the East 11th Street gallery promoted a number of graffiti artists, including hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, Futura 2000 (now known as Futura), “first lady of graffiti” Lady Pink, and Lee Quiñones (at that time better known as simply Lee). FUN was also among the first galleries to give solo shows to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
About a year after FUN opened, Joanne Mayhew-Young, who had renamed herself Gracie Mansion after the mayor’s official headquarters, open a gallery of her own. Mansion had been informally curating exhibits for some time in the bathroom of her East Village apartment, but in March 1982 she opened a small gallery on East Ninth Street. Mansion’s gallery shares much of the credit for the rise of controversial painter/photographer David Wojnarowicz with neighboring gallery Civilian Warfare; the latter produced Wojnarowicz solo shows in 1983 and ‘84.
Civilian Warfare also exhibited the surrealistic dolls of another groundbreaking East Village artist, Greer Lankton. Lankton was a friend and sometime roommate of Nan Goldin, whose photographs of the Bowery during this era formed much of her trailblazing exhibition and book “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.”
Artists Kent Klamen, Elizabeth Koury, and Meyer Vaisman opened another influential gallery, International with Monument, in 1984. Jeff Koons and Peter Halley had their first solo shows at this storefront gallery. During its three years in existence, the gallery also helped raise the profiles of Richard Prince and Laurie Simmons.
Even as International with Monument was launching, however, the East Village art scene was winding down. Some of this was due to climbing rents. Another reason was the inevitable co-opting of the antiestablishment artists by the establishment (which one could also describe as antiestablishment artists selling out to the establishment). Keith Haring and another artist represented by FUN, Kenny Scharf, left the gallery for SoHo’s Tony Shafrazi Gallery; Koons and Halley decamped to another SoHo gallery, Sonnabend, in 1986. International with Monument closed a year or so after the defections, only to reopen in 1988 as Koury-Wingate. The location of the new gallery? You guessed it: SoHo. Nonetheless, numerous galleries in the East Village today continue to nurture individualistic artistry, ensuring that the neighborhood maintains the idiosyncratic vibrancy that sets it apart from all others.