While the wild era of the early 80s East Village galleries has yet to be fully chronicled, a quick survey of the current art scene will soon reveal a great number of threads leading back to it. These run-down New York City blocks, which would have been considered no-go zones today, offered a sanctuary for anybody who for some reason or other didn’t quite fit in in the nicer parts of town. The maladjusted, the seekers, the creatives, and the plain old talented people who needed an outlet for their artistic experimentations all flocked here. Here, you were free to establish a permissive space of your very own.

Installation at CFHILL. Left to right: David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1983/88 Christof Kohlhofer & Marilyn Minter, Striking, 1984 Annie Morris, Stack 9, Studio Violet, 2018 Rhonda Zwillinger, I need a tropical vacation I, 1984 David Wojnarowicz, Head #5, from the Metamorphosis series, 1984 Installation at CFHILL. Left to right: David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1983/88 Christof Kohlhofer & Marilyn Minter, Striking, 1984 Annie Morris, Stack 9, Studio Violet, 2018 Rhonda Zwillinger, I need a tropical vacation I, 1984 David Wojnarowicz, Head #5, from the Metamorphosis series, 1984

“I found it exciting to see how they lived, and to learn how they thought and how they viewed the world. I bought works directly from the artists as well as from their galleries. It was fun to bring the works back home to Sweden, because they were so different. East Village art was street art, after all, and that kind of thing wasn’t very highly esteemed until quite recently,” Anders Wall tells us as he looks back on that eventful time.

Left: Hope Sandrow, At the Met.... Untitled XII (Metropolitan Museum, NYC, Gracie Mansion), 1984 Right: David Smith, Fuck’em if they can’t take a joke, Random Seed #60, 1989 Left: Hope Sandrow, At the Met.... Untitled XII (Metropolitan Museum, NYC, Gracie Mansion), 1984 Right: David Smith, Fuck’em if they can’t take a joke, Random Seed #60, 1989

Today, most of the galleries from the rowdy East Village era have closed down or moved on. This is in part because of the gentrification of the area and the great spike in rents that followed it, but also because the most successful of the galleries relocated to more prestigious neighbourhoods. In a way, this is a shame, because it means that a vital part of art history has been lost to us. It also produces a gap in our understanding of how and where these great upheavals began. One of the galleries that moved out was Art and Commerce, the first video gallery, which showed artists like the video pioneer Dara Birnbaum and the multi-talented David Wojnarowicz.

“A whole bunch of us woke up in the 1980s and decided that most of the prevailing practices were pretty damn boring and we were going to have fun. Really it was simple, but it wasn’t easy," said Carlo McCormick, culture critic and curator who lives in New York City.

The East Village Galleries: a Quick Guide

Graffiti artist Futura 2000 on his opening night at Fun Gallery, with Keith Haring. Photo by Sophie Bramly in 1983. Graffiti artist Futura 2000 on his opening night at Fun Gallery, with Keith Haring. Photo by Sophie Bramly in 1983.

Graffiti artist Futura 2000 on his opening night at Fun Gallery, with Keith Haring. Photo by Sophie Bramly in 1983.

FUN Gallery

It all began and ended with FUN.

FUN Gallery was the first gallery to appear in the area. Patti Astor, with her trademark platinum blonde hair and her contagious energy, kick-started the art scene in the East Village back in 1981. She was a close friend of the early pioneers of rap and hip hop, and she gave young, gifted artists like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Futura 2000 a boost in the early stages of their careers. Art was tightly connected to music in the village, and when Futura joined forces with the British band the Clash, it was really quite a small step for him to take. During their world tour, he created paintings live on stage while they performed their songs.

Gracie Mansion in 1985. Photo: People Magazine. Gracie Mansion in 1985. Photo: People Magazine.

Gracie Mansion

“It seemed to be a time of no limitations. Everything was possible; more than that, it was probable.” The voice behind these words belonged to perhaps the most famous of East Village art celebrities: Joanne Mayhew-Young, a.k.a. Gracie Mansion. As the 70s drew to a close, she was making her living as a law firm clerk, and spending her free time hanging her friends’ artworks. She started out in the attic of one of her lawyer friends (Jim Stark, who would go on to produce films for Jim Jarmusch, including Down by Law). After a series of successful exhibitions in her own bathroom in and around 1982 (The Loo Division), her landlord grew tired of her unruly visitors, and she decided to open her own space. She arranged for its financing by striking a deal with Stark, who agreed to purchase art for a set amount of money each month. She and the gallery both took the name Gracie Mansion after the New York Mayor’s residence. This may have been as far as you could get from pomp and circumstance, but her sense for the most significant developments in the art scene remains impeccable to this day.

“Basically, East Village was the epitome of Reagan-era America: money, celebrity, drugs, and death surrounded by regular people just struggling to survive.” - Gracie Mansion

Installation at CFHILL. Left to right: Walter Robinson, Mermaid (Porn Study/Mermaid), 1984 Zheng Lu, Wave, 2018 Richard Hambleton, Elegy, 1984 Carsten Höller, Giant Triple Mushroom, 2015 Katrine Helmersson, Pochoir, 2014 Installation at CFHILL. Left to right: Walter Robinson, Mermaid (Porn Study/Mermaid), 1984 Zheng Lu, Wave, 2018 Richard Hambleton, Elegy, 1984 Carsten Höller, Giant Triple Mushroom, 2015 Katrine Helmersson, Pochoir, 2014

Piezo Electric

Opened in 1983. This gallery’s somewhat cryptic name is actually a scientific term that denotes electrical charges induced in crystalline substances by the application of pressure. Doug Milford and Lisa McDonald, the couple who ran the gallery, had quite the taste for nudity, sex, and melodrama. The list of artists shown there notably includes Richard Hambleton and Kiki Smith. The former of these will forever be associated with his Shadowman character; a large, frightening, quickly painted figure that would give people taking nightly strolls through dark alleyways a terrible fright. The latter would become one of the most celebrated members of the late 80s generation of innovative female artists, who cast off the oppressive weight of modernism to strike out on new paths.

David Wojnarowicz, Head #5, from the Metamorphosis series,1984 David Wojnarowicz, Head #5, from the Metamorphosis series,1984

Civilian Warfare

Civilian Warfare, which was founded by friends Alan Barrows and Dean Savard in 1982, soon became something of a nexus for the most infamous and sensational exhibitions and performances. One of the stars who made his debut there was the young, uncompromising David Wojnarowicz. His highly political and erotic art was executed on old advertising posters and metal scrap he found in the street. Along with his boyfriend, photographer Peter Hujar, he was one of the first to document artistically the transition of the gay movement from liberation to Reagan-era conservatism and death by AIDS. According to an interview from that time, the gallery’s name was inspired by the area itself, and the open drug trade and crime that went on there.

Other noteworthy galleries from this era are the New Math galleries, Gallery 303, and P P O W.

Installation at CFHILL. Left to right: David Smith, Fuck’em if they can’t take a joke, Random Seed #60, 1989 Olle Baertling, KERAK, 1957 ERO, Sweet treat, 1984 Annie Morris, Stack 9, Studio Violet, 2018 Installation at CFHILL. Left to right: David Smith, Fuck’em if they can’t take a joke, Random Seed #60, 1989 Olle Baertling, KERAK, 1957 ERO, Sweet treat, 1984 Annie Morris, Stack 9, Studio Violet, 2018

“I thought of… how anything was possible and how clear the future lay in front of us. We knew nothing of the impending plague and thought that those halcyon days (and nights) would be the defining moments of our lives. How wonderfully naïve we were.” - Cornelius Conboy, commenting on the East Village era at Tim Greathouse’s funeral in 1998.