New books look back at NYC's neighborhood art scene
The artists' isolation would not protect them from the art world for long. Soon, limos were disgorging passengers at openings on the heroin and rat-filled terra incognita east of First Avenue. East Village stalwarts like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Haring became rich and internationally famous, and even Wojnarowicz became a fairly established up-and-coming art star. The rags-to-riches story of the East Village scene might be the same kind of innocent tale of lost Bohemia as that of 112 Greene, were it not for the AIDS crisis shadowing it the whole time. Carr skillfully juxtaposes the narrative of openings and parties with chronological news reports of the then-unknown new disease. Carr describes a party on Fire Island in July 1981: writer Cookie Mueller read a story from the New York Times out loud to the room about a strange, new "gay cancer". Photographer Nan Goldin, who was present, remembers today, "We all just kind of laughed."
Carr's tale picks up suspense after Wojnarowicz himself is diagnosed with AIDS. Over a breathtaking two-year period, Wojanrowicz embarks on an urgent mission to complete every single art project he'd ever hoped to accomplish in the time left to him in life. In the process he almost reluctantly becomes the fiery AIDS activist we remember today. While working on his career retrospective, he also battles the harassment of his landlord who is determined to evict Wojnarowicz and convert his loft in the gentrifying East Village into a cinema multiplex. He struggles to complete his memoir, even as his work becomes the focus of battles over government funding of art. Soon, Republicans denounce the dying man's work as obscene and anti-Christian on the floors of Congress, and Wojnarowicz becomes a target of conservative Mississippi preacher Reverand Donald Wildmon's public attacks. Wojnarowicz absorbed these attacks and the era's stunning homophobia and turned them into what became the most powerful work of his career, the myth of his own life.
Carr's book stands along with recent work like Sarah Schulman's Gentrification of The Mind as a corrective to the uncritical nostalgia for the lost New York City of the 1970s and 80s that seems to have flowed like a river from Patti Smith's 2009 memoir, Just Kids. These works unromantically detail what has been lost and then lovingly describe exactly how painfully it was all lost. Yet, perhaps all is not lost. While arts neighborhoods like the ones described in 112 Greene Street and Fire in the Belly seem like a thing of the past, the towering myths left behind by figures like Matta-Clark and Wojanrowicz still bring young artists against all odds to the rehabbed neighborhoods of San Francisco and New York today. Everytime Sara Thustra serves a meal at an opening at Adobe Books on 16th Street or Homonomixxx shuts down a Wells Fargo bank, we walk, if just for a short time, the streets of our old familiar city.
David Wojnarowicz: Cynthia Carr and Amy Scholder in Conversation
Wed/3, 7:30pm, free
San Francisco Art Institute
800 Chestnut, SF