(One of my favorite haunts. And yes, rents were under $200 a month in those days.)
by Brett Sokol | NY Times
Club 57, Late-Night Home of Basquiat and Haring Gets a Museum-Worthy Revival.
It hardly looked like hallowed cultural ground, let alone the heart of the 1980s East Village art scene. Even Kenny Scharf, who practically lived out of this spot, seemed unsure on a recent afternoon whether 57 Saint Marks Place was truly the former location of Club 57, the basement bar that served as the louche headquarters for a now-legendary art movement and its foremost triad of art stars, the painters (and sometimes friendly rivals) Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Mr. Scharf. Staring at the sign of the building’s current tenant — the St. Marks Place Institute for Mental Health — Mr. Scharf, 59, finally cracked a smile. “This must be the right place, it sounds like the name of a great party we threw here once,” he quipped.
Perhaps it’s the all-glass balconies on the remodeled tenement house across the street that were throwing off Mr. Scharf’s memories — just one clue that monthly rents have jumped far beyond the $150 that the average Club 57-goer would have paid for a neighborhood apartment in 1980 (still the equivalent of less than $500). “I really feel for artists starting out today,” Mr. Scharf said, recalling his own arrival from California to attend the School of Visual Arts. “When I got to New York in 1978 you could work a couple of nights a week to pay your bills, and the rest of the time you were free. That’s how cheap it was.”
Yet the more distant that era becomes, the more of an iron grip it holds on the imagination of many of today’s younger artists, nostalgic for a time they never experienced, even as they stew over the inequities of the modern-day art market it created.
This tension provides the backdrop for a Museum of Modern Art exhibition opening Tuesday, “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983,”focusing on the barely five-year existence of Club 57 and the close-knit coterie of artists who called it home. The curatorial mix doesn’t stint on the boldface names: paintings and a walk-in Day-Glo “Cosmic Closet” installation by Mr. Scharf, early drawings by both Basquiat and Haring (who served as Club 57’s exhibitions manager), as well as videos of gleefully unhinged performance art by Ann Magnuson, the venue’s day-to-day manager and chief ringleader. But they also share space with works by a roster of lesser-known but still impressive talents: inventive portraiture by the brothers Adolfo and Oliver Sanchez, as well as by Stephen Tashjian; silk-screens by John Sex; photographs by Katherine Dumas, Joseph Szkodzinski, Tseng Kwong Chi, and Ande Whyland; videos of the singer Klaus Nomi; 8-millimeter films by Lisa Baumgardner; and perhaps most evocative of the period, the hand-designed and photocopied fliers advertising the artists’ shows — many of them pieces of art in their own right.
Much of this work, Mr. Scharf explained, was a reaction to the prevailing downtown New York spirit, one in which the dominant aesthetics revolved around an austere minimalism and theory-laden conceptualism. “No color, no representational figures, no fun at all,” Mr. Scharf groused of the classroom ethos at the School of Visual Arts. “We were taught that art is supposed to be serious and something you suffer for. I was melting plastic dinosaurs over TV sets and laughing while I was doing it — the ultimate crime.”
Neither his professors nor his fellow students were amused.
Searching for more like-minded, similarly alienated students, one day Mr. Scharf followed the sound of Devo playing on a boombox to a hallway outside an unused classroom. There he found Mr. Haring, furiously creating a riot of patterns on the walls and floor, “literally painting himself into a corner. Yes! This is who I imagined I’d meet in New York!” The two soon gravitated to Club 57 where Ms. Magnuson and a crew of kindredly disaffected School of Visual Arts graduates were already holding court.
However, Club 57’s origins had little to do with art. The Holy Cross Polish National Catholic Church had charged Stanley Strychacki, who had arrived in the neighborhood from Poland in 1972, with raising additional parish revenue from their cavernous Gramercy Park wedding hall, Irving Plaza, as well as from the church’s barely used basement bar, which Mr. Strychacki named the East Village Students Club. But Mr. Strychacki quickly grew bored of catering to either the polka crowd or New York University students. Instead, he found himself drawn toward the punk and garage rock bands springing up nearby.
In February of 1978 he rechristened the still largely empty basement bar as Club 57. Its pianist and disco D.J. were out, replaced by concerts with the Fleshtones, the Zantees, and the Misfits, as well as a revival of Sam Shepard’s play, “Cowboy Mouth.” That November, Mr. Strychacki fell in love with a series of “New Wave Vaudeville” revues held at Irving Plaza — each a mash-up of a Dada cabaret and a Little Rascals–style production. He invited the organizers — Ms. Magnuson, Susan Hannaford, and Tom Scully — to take over Club 57. By May of 1979, all three were programming events there on a regular basis.
“At any given time, the club was a dance hall, a screening room, a watering hole, a theater lab, an art gallery, or a self-styled ‘let it all hang out’ encounter group,” Ann Magnuson writes in MoMA’s “Club 57” exhibition catalog. “Sometimes it was all those things at once.”
That interdisciplinary spirit had painters making music, musicians making sculptures, sculptors acting in plays, and actors tossing their scripts in favor of improvised performances, or as Keith Haring called the evenings he organized, “Acts of Live Art.” Case in point: Min Thometz, a freshly arrived graduate of a high school in Minnesota, who began bartending at Club 57 — when she wasn’t also stepping out mid-shift to act in a play or perform in Pulsallama, an all-female 13-member percussion ensemble.
“We were all about being very silly at Club 57,” she said in a recent phone interview, which made for a purposely stark contrast with the similarly artist-heavy crowd at TriBeCa’s Mudd Club, “which was more about fashion, about being ‘cool.’ We were about wearing costumes and having theme parties.” Indeed, her own “Bongo Voodoo” party ended with dead chickens being flung around, a raging bonfire in the middle of the club’s floor, and her future husband Oliver Sanchez passing out on her turntables as she was D.J.-ing, a novel twist on a meet-cute story.
Yet indoor fires and flying poultry were the least of the worries for a club that never had a liquor license. Letters from Mr. Strychacki’s archives show the Holy Cross parish’s bishop, John Jakubik, tirelessly intervening on Club 57’s behalf with a string of judges and government agencies. In 1981, when frustrated neighbors finally hired a lawyer to help shut down the club after repeated police summons for noise violations, Bishop Jakubik patiently informed him that “Club 57 is the youth circle of our church … Please try to understand that the East Village is not the best of areas and our parish hall is the only place where our youth can socialize under supervision.”
Sleep-deprived neighbors on St. Marks Place weren’t the only ones fixating on Club 57. The art world was taking notice as well. New collectors began arriving, pumping money into a previously moribund market. With them came a burst of fresh galleries throughout the East Village — a handful in 1981, over a hundred by 1985. The downtown art world, centered around academia and small government grants, had previously seemed separated by a chasm from free-spending buyers. No longer. As checkbooks opened and media attention skyrocketed, it suddenly looked like artists could have it all.
“I’ll never forget what Jean-Michel said to me one night,” Mr. Sanchez said, recalling a walk home from the club. “‘I’ll learn to draw later. First I want to get famous.’ His work was already good, but he was so astute in his strategy. His plan was to charm his way into the right circles. And it absolutely worked!”
“There was this mad rush to cash in,” Mr. Scharf said. “It stopped being as fun as people became competitive with each other.” He includes himself. “For the 1983 Whitney Biennial, Keith and Jean-Michel were in it, and I wasn’t. Which freaked me out!” Part of his solution was a pre-internet social media campaign: “I started spray painting my Hanna-Barbera post-nuclear-holocaust mutant characters — like Wilma Flintstone with a snake body — all up and down the East Side, from the 59th Street Bridge to the East Village. I had no idea who the curators for the 1985 Whitney Biennial were, but I figured they would at least know my work.”
Whether through ubiquity or talent, his gambit succeeded. In 1984 the Whitney bought a massive 10-by-17-foot-long painting of his. In 1985 they tapped him to create a sprawling installation for the Biennial. Still, the victory was bittersweet. The AIDS crisis was in full bloom. “People would go fast,” Mr. Scharf said. “One minute they were a beautiful 20- year-old, the next you could see the look of death in their face.”
Yet AIDS was only one of the plagues ravaging the art world. In his 2012 memoir,“Life as Art,” Mr. Strychacki despaired over the wave of heroin flooding the East Village in the early ’80s, an epidemic that also overtook Club 57. Following Ann Magnuson’s departure in 1981 to focus on her acting career, Mr. Strychacki writes of having to dismiss a string of staff members who ran the club’s finances into the ground as they became drug addicts: “What did I accomplish, besides providing a shooting gallery?” Feeling personally betrayed and burned out, he closed Club 57 in early 1983.
Decades later, Mr. Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988, continues to break auction records with sales prices of his paintings reaching nine figures. And the work of Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990, and Mr. Scharf has been showcased in the same School of Visual Arts classrooms they once mocked. It’s enough to make one wonder if the original Club 57 gang isn’t the new art establishment.
Mr. Scharf’s eyes narrow at that suggestion, as he points out that MoMA’s “Club 57” exhibition isn’t being held in one of the museum’s main galleries. Rather, it’s in the bowels of the building near the lesser-trafficked screening rooms. “We’re not getting the upstairs space,” Mr. Scharf said pointedly. “It feels very appropriate that we were the kids in the basement back then, and we’re still in the basement.”