The "Only Money vs. Only No Money" thread here made me think of this...
Odd that about 28 years ago I was having a very similar discussion one day in a loft on Mercer Street owned by a cocaine dealer friend of my brother's who had laundered his money by buying up a great deal of that neighborhood. Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word had come out the previous year and someone was playing a then-unreleased demo of a song by Joni Mitchell, composed as a response to Wolfe (The Boho Dance.) Naturally the concurrence was that Wolfe was an asshole and Mitchell a genius. I also remember that Larry Rivers was there and we laughed about the fact that his gallery was completely mystified by his latest work and was begging him to "stay on track" and keep grinding out commercial product. It was shortly after this that the exodus began-- first to the wilds below Canal Street, and then to the East Village.
The reason we all moved to the East Village, if I remember correctly, had less to do with rents than with the fact that the spirit of CBGB's still held sway and that a morning walk down Second Avenue or Avenue A was literally like being in a real village. One ran into poet, painter, filmmaker and punk singer alike. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was working on something new. Of course the fact that the monthly rent bill was under $75 was pretty cool too. This was before Gracie and Patti Astor, pretty much before anyone except... Jack Smith!
I lived with the writer/artist David Wojnarowicz and a str8 couple who were heavy duty Bruce Springsteen fans in a building at Second Avenue & 10th. David was literally the most non-commercial, non-art world type of guy. Hated every aspect of the bloodsucking commerce and asskissing that goes hand in hand with NYC's art scene. Turned down many a chance to "make it big" and strike it rich. Needless to say, I supported us both by working as the graveyard cook all the way across town at The Empire Diner. (Monica Lynch, later of Tommy Boy, was the waitress, btw, and together we managed to feed a lot of those starving artists for free out of the Diner's back door! It was also here, in this chrome and black glass Deco monstrosity that I first met our Empress... but that's another story.)
The gallery owners who came along shortly after did indeed believe in the work rather than the profit. And there is certainly nothing wrong with them later turning a profit on that belief.
After all, I own quite a few pieces by David as well as others; these will probably be my "retirement fund" someday :-)
David was later commissioned to do an enormous installation in the Park Avenue duplex of a "collector." Much of this was constructed from old newspaper and junk found on the street and has probably long since crumbled to dust. But the fee for this installation enabled him to eat and buy supplies for an entire year. I remember him agonizing a great deal over whether this was "selling out." Seems funny in light of today's whoring which is so much more unabashed.
As far as the relationship between heroin and the East Village art explosion, I would like to set the record straight, from my perspective at least. The really great artists from this time period were, for the most part, not junkies. They may have dabbled as David did, but they were not regular users. The only exception perhaps, was Jean-Michel. And he was part of an entirely different milleau-- Warhol, and that was most definitely Uptown. But heroin, at the time was everywhere. Runners calling out the names of brands of dope were everywhere, as were the warning cries of, "¡Bajando!. The streets were literally paved with it, many died from it, so it is little wonder that our perception is, in retrospect, that the drug fueled the art and music "explosion" of the Eighties in a big way. What the drug actually did, though, was to underscore, by its proximity, our outsider status and the impression that we were really living "in the belly of the beast."
Though I haven't yet seen the New Museum show, I am actually curious to see what they have left out. That would be very telling. It certainly is a very daunting concept to attempt a retrospective of work from this era. By 1984, there were 57 galleries there in full swing. Not to mention hundreds of clubs, theatres, bars and other venues. For that fact alone, what happened in the EV will most likely never happen again.... anywhere.
I would also like to point out, for those who believe everyone is rolling in it, that very recently, Futura 2000, one of the brilliant graffiti artists from this era, and who is represented in the Saatchi & Saatchi collection, could be found working behind the counter at Kinko's.
And don't even get me started on the subject of Mark Kostabi...