Nils borrowed his sister‑in‑law’s car on Sunday morning and drove through the tunnel into Manhattan. His brother Paul and his family were getting ready to go to church and Paul seemed a bit surprised that he chose not to with them, thinking it would set a bad example for his children but when asked, Nils smiled and shrugged, raised his eyebrows and said, “It’s not something I regularly do,” and that was it. They didn’t quarrel about it and hadn’t argued about anything in years. The brothers lived a thousand miles apart and, during the times such as these when they visited one another, they were civil and courteous, if not overly affecionate.
It was late February and a sharp, clear morning. He drove to the end of the block and turned right, passing through the quiet neighborhood, streets with still, kempt houses and huge trees with bare branches vaulting overhead. At the red light he waited for only a moment, then turned right without knowing whether it was legal, went down the busy street and got on the expressway. He tried several stations before turning the radio off. It was preferable to listen instead to the unarticulated woosh of the car moving forward. He felt like he was fleeing, although from nothing specific, maybe just the static of so many things. It was his first visit to the New York office since being made a partner in the firm. It had gone well, but he felt overwhelmed, innundated, not just by data like the P & L’s to individual department budgets, which he never had to worry about before, but by faces and names, attitudes and reactions, working conditions, the efficiency of certain operations. As a partner, an officer of the company, he now had to pay attention to so many things that he previosly ignored. He liked to focus on things and he did his best work concentrating on a single purpose or issue, and letting everything else be subordinate to it. This, he believed, made him a good lawyer. And just visiting with his brother’s family had become an effort, the interaction, being friendly with the kids. It felt liberating to
be left alone. It was getting warm in the car, but instead of wrestling with his heavy top coat, he turned the heater off. There was an important planning meeting monday, tomorrow, and he would head have to go directly to the office from the airport and he began to consider some of the topics that were to be discussed. But the release he felt by escaping in the car was so pleasant, almost therapeutic, that he decided to cleanse his thoughts of work and responsibility, to keep his mind as blank as possible. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs and then let the air out slowly.
The car was a large Buick and it slipped smoothly over the frozen concrete, unlike his BMW that was so stiff and responsive. Driving required little attention and he lounged, relaxed in the soft seats. His legs and arms felt light and insubstantial and the muscles in his neck lost a tension that had been in them for days. Even his jaw felt suddenly released. Nils drove watching the scenery, which was aslulling as television, with only the white noise of the shattering air as soundtrack. Cars passed him and he stared at the drivers. He decided to get in the left lane and drive 35 miles an hour, just to aggravate some people, just for fun. But it was Sunday morning and any fast drivers only had to swerve to the right to pass him. He resisted judgement or analysis and just watched objects outside his window, operating without his usual points of reference, without values. He was as alert as he was relaxed, finding comfort in the abscence of his usual life. There was a smoothness versus the jagged nature of things that comes with the attention to detail. He moved as little as possible, not wanting to disturb a hypnotic frisson of well being. He couldn’t remember feeling this way. He felt simply and intensely alive.
The landscape became more dense, complex as he got further into the city. Neighborhoods, factories, buildings crowded close and old brick buildings formed cliffs along the edge as the expressway dipped below the street level, another change of visual images. Some other time, he might have considered what these deteriorating neighborhoods represented. But now the car just floated along. He had never noticed before the black granite exposed along the side of the ramp heading down the ramp into the Lincoln Tunnel. But the sight of the skyline across the Hudson River he received just before he entered the tunnel, was of unusual stillness and detail.
He did not know where he was headed, and this aimlessness was just fine, but ended up driving down Tenth Avenue south and into Greenwich Village. He parked the car on Thompson street and walked across the street to Washington Square. Nils had been to New York many times over the years, but always ended up downtown or in Midtown or out in New Jersey, visiting his brother and family. He couldn’t remember ever consciously avoiding coming here, although sometimes memories would assemble in his mind, unprompted. For a brief time, a summer and a little more it seemed like the center of the world. He hadn’t been back to the park for twenty three years. It had been so long he had expected to find it all strange, but instead everything fit into his mental image of the place. He thought his memory must be weak. He looked around for something to disorient him, but the new playgrounds, and a couple of suspicious buildings off the park, seemed comfortable, natural. The air here smelled fresh and the cold was stimulating. This was a perfect place to come, to be away from everything, to relax, watch the swirl of the Square and to turn off himself.
A black man with dredlocks sauntered past, as O’Neal approached the fountain. He looked directly forward as he walked by, but said “Sensi?” O’Neal wasn’t sure what the man had said and almost turned and said something, but then realized the man was selling marijuana. He was struck by this curiosity as he wasn’t a likely candidate at forty two and hadn’t been in years.
But he looked young, this he knew, even the little bit of grey seemed to work and he smiled at the man’s mistake. He looked young and was very handsome and, at once a little vain and amused and grateful at the circumstance. Forty two wasn’t what it sounded like, anyway. People were aging more slowly now and lived longer lives. Even a wife and children wasn’t entirely inconceivable. This gave him pause; he thought about it often and, were he to do it, it would mean altering so much of his life. For instance, he would have to sell the townhouse and move out of the city and travel… rather than play out the scenarios again in his mind, he turned and watched as the man moved farther away. O’Neal concluded that he was a fake. An experienced dealer, even a small timer would stay away, that, in fact, O’Neal probably looked more like a narc than a customer. He must have been new or desperate. In all likelihood he wasn’t even Jamaican. Some guy from the South Bronx posing as a Rastafarian, a marketing technique.
He passed the fountain and went up to a curved row of park benches, facing south, with the statue of Garibaldi nearby to the left, the playground behind, out of his vision. He cleared off some snow and sat down. He buttoned his wool coat to the top and felt glad he didn’t have a hat. Although it was less than thirty degrees, the sun radiated directly, arcing low across the sky, mitigating the cold. He turned up his chin and let the rays fall gently on his face. Even the marginal warmth felt like a portent of the spring, felt like hope. Any real chill came from a variable, at times stiff wind blowing from the west. And so there were few stationary occupants of the park, just foot traffic.
The first thing he noticed was that practically everyone in the park was dressed in black. Black coats and black shoes and black gloves and shoes and scarves and even glasses; he smiled at the thought that it looked like the cast from Mummenschanz. Secondly, it might have been the cold but all these people were young, and that didn’t feel exactly right. They moved quickly. Some young men with shaved heads went by their ears turning red. Nils’ initial study revealed that, as a general rule, women covered their heads and men did not. He didn’t know what that meant and it didn’t matter anyway. The wind plastered a newspaper on to the back of a man who didn’t bother to peel it off as he walked, or stomped angrily along. Nils thought this was great and laughed. My God, he said to himself, are you easily amused.
Two oriental girls that passed in front of him were heading east, meticulously bundled up and holding books with crossed arms
to the front of their coats. NYU Students, he told himself, on their way to the library on Sunday morning. This kind of dedication was both admirable and frightening. Maybe he had spent too much time reading about it the busines literature of the day but he found the asian work ethic, the loss of self, intimidating, not to mention successes in the universities that far exceeded their numbers. Perhaps there was some nascent rascism to be considered. He thought for a moment about perhaps using some of what he had read recently in tomorrow’s meeting. Instead he thought about how delicate and pretty their faces were and watched shiny hair that shivered in the wind.
Down along the benches about fifteen feet, a man sat down and began reading, lumping the Sunday Times onto his lap. He was one of the leftovers of the sixties that Nils tended to notice maundering about, with long and curly hair and a full and wild beard. He wore round, wire‑frame glasses, denim jeans and jacket, with a peace symbol patch on the sleeve, and construction boots. Some grey was evident in his hair and Nils guessed that he was in his middle thirties, maybe as old as he was. He found himself feeling disdain for those who clung to the era, for invariably they were people who thought the decade started in 1966 or 1967. His hair never got to be that long and he dressed pretty straight, but he participated in civil rights marches and questioned Viet Nam before it became the thing to do. He was a campus radical when it was hard being one, in 1962 and he really believed in activism and change and loved the intellectual atmosphere of the times and much of his energy was drawn from the few months he spent at NYU. He was just a little ahead of the mainstream away from New York. He did sometimes regret having used asthma to get declared 4F and considered often how the prison time he had he’d serve, would have changed his life. Instead he suffered through the latter years of the era, watching political activism become both superficial, violent, anti‑ intellectual, undiscriminating. The era was likea dream in the Midwest, surreal, without gravity. He withdrew from it all, bitter from initial hope. He found himself dismissing opinions and people that only a few years earlier he would have been joyfully desperate to engage. The bearded man represented to him all those who used commitment and radicalism to be cool, fit in, get laid, whatever. Nils believed something had been taken from him by them.
He remembered, though he hadn’t really forgotten, that Natalie had given him his first copy of Siddhartha, while sitting on the edge of the fountain. He looked over to the cold, quiet curve of stone and picked out the approximate spot where they were sitting when she gave him the book. He resisted the urge to walk over. He caught a frame of her face in his memory, of her smiling as she rummaged through a huge, old satchel. He had forgotten what she looked like. Not that he couldn’t describe her or recognize her in a photograph. She had shiny black hair and very white skin, luminous he had said, and either extremely dark brown or black eyes. But he didn’t have a picture, and for years couldn’t compose an image in his mind. Now he closed his eyes and tried to force his memory to retain it. Of course she would look differently now and at once he had images of her as still the same, beautiful, but mostly only to him, and also as being treated less kindly by the years. He began to think about where she might be now, what she might be doing and, most poignantly, what she might make of him. Nils made sure again he could recall her face. It was more precious, more important to be able to do so than he had thought, now that he had found the memory. He stopped himself.
“You really are getting to be an old man.”
As much as the place was full of memories, Nils was not a
nostalgic person and recollections did not suit him. He instructed himself he was to just watch and enjoy this parade. A figure appeared underneath the statue. His hair and beard were knotty and matted, long and wild. His clothing was of dark grey layers and folds twisting into one exagerrated garment. His face too was indistinct, with the beard and dirty hair falling forward. He could have been anywhere from agetwenty five to seventy. Normally he would, a blur in the consciousness, something indistinct to be forgotten, but his costume and prescence seemed an intrusion. Like billboards in the countryside, the homeless are a sight in any large city so frequent as to defy notice. But he hadn’t made the connection until then, that the city as it was presently constituted meant that there would be homeless in every neighborhood, even the Village. The man was trying to take something from his left pocket with his right hand and by doing so mimiced Garibaldi unsheathing his sword. Nils smiled sadly, at once at the pose but also at his lack of outrage. He waded slowly through a flock of pigeons, not panhandling, quiet and staring straight ahead.
The birds stalked in front of him now, checking the concrete for any food. He concentrated on one, a large bird, one with a thick, enormous neck, that would hop and half fly from spot to spot, unlike the others. At first, Nils, the scientist, thought it was missing a leg but after watching, he saw the bird put the leg down for balance for a moment then pull it back up under his body. It was injured, but also able to use the leg if necessary and the use seemed arbitrary, as the pigeon let it remain down for a period of time, then pulled it up to fly a yard to graze at another spot. The leg was apparently a tacit support for him. In spite of the flaw this bird was dominant; as it moved into different areas, the others moved out of it’s path.
He turned to see a couple and a dog crossing from the left, the dog barking at everything, at the daylight. The pigeons didn’t move until the dog turned his attention that way and rushed them and they flew up and then down a few feet away and the dod barked on, at Nils, at the fountain and finally the Arch. They were blandly handsome, suburban people, with clean and straight features, properly groomed and wearing clothes from a catalogue, smiling. They may have lived near the square, but he judged them to be more investors than residents. As they neared the fountain they were passed by two punks wearing identical costumes, heavy black boots, balck pants and shirts with sleeveless jeans jackets that were tattered and painted clumsily with vague symbols. They sneered something at the couple. There was no response.
Another man came from the direction of the arch, repeating a
one word refrain of ‘smoke’. Such entrepenuers were apparently common here. Moments later a squad car drove slowly through the park and pulled next to him, catching up near the bocce ball court. He thought they might bust him. They talked for a moment, too far away for Nils to hear, and then the car drove away. As much as he didn’t care for the drug vendors, the police also gave the presence of an interloper. After all he had gotten high for the first time right outside the park, in a funny moment of paranoia and exhiliration. These two characters made each other alien, both denying the others right to be here.
An old guy came moving towards Nils from the southeast corner of the park. He had a shock of white hair, short but messy, he was older than anyone else in the park. His clothing was very wrinkled and old, but still discrete. He moved stiffly, arthritically. As he went past, Nils noticed his rheumy eyes and, for some reason, the man seemed lonely or at least alone. Perhaps his unkempt appearance evoked this, but he was out of place here and vulnerable. Was his life structured and safe or was he on the slope? It was a tough call but in any case he made it look hard to be old around here.
He suddenly began to feel uncomfortable, not surprisingly, he thought, in this wind and cold, so he got up and headed out of the park, down Thompson, towards the south. Again he wasn’t sure where he was going. His sister‑in‑law’s car was on the other side
of the street and a young black or Puerto Rican man was standing on the sidewalk leaning against it. He walked down a block , to Third and went into the corner grocery store where he bought a cup of coffee. The arab behind the counter said nothing during the transaction. Nils noticed he was developing a slight headache tore a half moon out of the plastic lid and began sipping the coffee through it. He went back across third and found that walking up Thompson twenty feet, he could lean against an iron fence and that the large building on the corner blocked the wind completely, and he could warm himself in unobstructed sunlight. He tried to recover the sensation he had felt in the car.
But the frisson of freedom was now completely gone, the vacation from consciousness was over. Whatever exhiliration he had experienced was now replaced with a kind of weighty dullness.There were so many demands to be met and his mind was overwhelmed by all of them at once He was reminded of a description in ‘The Possessed’ where Dostoevsky describes the clarity and intense consciousness experienced by an epileptic before a siezure. Perhaps those earlier feelings of well being and relaxation were merely misfirings of the brain, chemicals; endorphins? He couldn’t remember. He didn’t know, but he was struck by the idea that something had smothered his joy, that something had occurred.
He looked back up Thompson at the Square. It had looked so familiar, but it’s nature was radically different. It was an emptier place, and it was unlikely that it was still the center
of a neighborhood. The Village no longer contained rhythm or sense of proportion. The little old ladies were gone, even on a cold day like this they would be out. And the friendly italian grocers and folk singers, he knew they were not here any more, he could feel that the place had changed. It was now composed mostly of energy and no substance, even in the lassitude of Sunday morning. And such were the people, all poseurs or squatters or
aliens or fakes. Even the students seemed to be posturing in some way. Not one belonged there. They had taken away from him a place in his memory. It was a slight thing, to be sure, a small pillar in his construct of the world, but for the moment it made him deeply sad.
The young man who had been leaning against the car pushed off it and started walking towards O’Neal. Another seller he supposed.
“Against the extremes of banality and selfishness most especially personal ones, the concept of the village…”
He thought he might write something down about his experience, but he couldn’t write prose and he knew it. He wrote a little poetry twenty years ago and he knew what that was worth.
He had work to do now, preparations for tomorrow’s meeting. There was also an apartment building he wanted to look at after he returned home, one that looked like an excellent investment, and he made a mental note to check on that this week. He sipped his coffee as the man came slowly up the street. It was probably better to walk past him, he thought, than to have the man approach him; easier to ignore him when he tries to sell whatever. His flight was at six that evening and he might as well be heading back. Sunday dinner with his brothers family would be a real treat, something he didn’t get to do so much these days. He doubted his brother would be angry at him. His legs felt heavy as he walked up the street and his knees were sore and stiff. He looked forward to sitting in the car. The dealer stared as they drew closer. He had a heavy lidded and constant glare and he walked in the middle of the sidewalk, not allowing passage on either side. O’Neal became a little alarmed. His clothes were dirty and he looked desperate. O’Neal felt for his keys in the pocket of his coat, and made a fist with the keys sticking out between his fingers. He made a plan to hit the dealer on the side of the head. The gouging impact of the keys would be painful enough so that he could run for the car. He hoped his legs would not fail him if he ran for it and that made him feel more anxious and vulnerable. His blood pumped forcefully and his forearms throbbed as he held his fists tightly closed. He was ready to swing when the man opened his mouth to speak and mumbled, “You spare a dollar for somethin’ to eat?”
O’Neal stifled a laugh as he fished around for some money. The man was a pathetic figure and he did not want him to think that he was being laughed at. But O’Neal couldn’t help but wonder what other things he may have gotten wrong.
vacation like quality to altering one’s mode of consciousness, the way we perceive the world or, to use the terms of a world innundated with cybernetics, analyze sensory data. Drink, drugs, mystical experience or any kind of transcendence offer this respite, but it is hardly necessary to use a radical approach. Television offers a key to a manner in which we all adjust our perceptions; it is a constant procession of images which we may look at but probably not interpret, analyze or judge. The popularity of television may come not from it’s ability to entertain, but rather to soothe, to lull. And, similarly a person may decide to view the world without attatching values, without examining repercussions, without categorizing, suspending the experential faculties of our minds. There are advantages to myopia. Surfaces seem clean and smooth; fissures are not apparent.
|January 18, 2005 | home|
THAT EIGHTIES SHOW
by PETER SCHJELDAHL
Revisiting the East Village.
Issue of 2005-01-24
“East Village USA,” at the New Museum, explores a do-it-yourself art scene that took form suddenly in 1981 and flourished until its equally abrupt end, in 1987. Bold youths stormed an impoverished neighborhood that had been devastated, in the previous decade, by fire and crime. They promulgated nihilistic punk and nascent hip-hop, the rogue glamour of graffiti, haphazard variants of neo-expressionist painting, gamey performance art, drag-queen cheek, anarchist political deliriums, and bustling entrepreneurship. Limousines purring outside storefront galleries on grubby blocks symbolized a romance of the rich with the nether classes which gentrified the latter out of house and home, and betrayed their artistic progeny, as one season’s cosseted graffiti master became the next’s snubbed has-been. aids, fashion fatigue, real-estate speculation, and the lure of a booming SoHo for the more nimble dealers and artists, (who were fed up with tenements that afforded few spaces suitable for exhibiting or even making art) withered the scene’s shallow roots. There was something toxically facetious about the East Village versions of avant-gardism and la vie bohème which heralded a shift to arch self-consciousness in American culture. (Writing in this show’s catalogue, Liza Kirwin notes the nearly simultaneous débuts, in 1982, of a trailblazing gallery in the artist Gracie Mansion’s bathroom and “Late Night with David Letterman.”) But the half-cooked epoch was significant in ways that merit closer consideration than it has received.
The best art in the show, which manages to be both comprehensive and concise, tends to be the least reflective of the street-level East Village experience, with one exception. Nan Goldin’s color photographs of determinedly broken youth—from her great, baggy suite “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”—preserve the desperate, at times literally deathly, ardors of a generation that stayed up late to fit into each day its maximum quotient of mistakes. Her work’s formal beauty and aching intimacy transformed a genre of kids-on-the-skids vérité that had previously been identified with grainy black-and-white and churlish defiance. (Think of Larry Clark’s winsome, strung-out oafs.) In “The Hug” (1980), a bare, muscular, strangely disembodied male arm clasps a frizzy-haired girl in a thrift-shop blue dress. Her face is unseen, but she feels known: daughter, sister, confidante. Flash-lit, with inky shadows, in a corner of a white-walled apartment, the picture is a baroque icon, becoming classical as its period qualities recede in time. Thanks to Goldin, the East Village moment lingers as a fable of tear-stained vitality that, thwarted by limitations both personal and cultural, stupidly but somehow magnificently threw itself away in drugs, drink, violence, and spasmodic erotic splendor. A suggested title for a musical version that would be truer than the formulaic “Rent”: “What I Undid for Love.”
In general, what survives as estimable East Village art is somehow atypical of East Village art, whose echt keynote was punkish amateurism, and whose strongest mode was ephemeral performance. (Projected videos of Karen Finley, Ethyl Eichelberger, Ann Magnuson, and other galvanic spirits in action are informative, at times hilarious and even moving, tribulations.) Most of the paintings in the show are terrible, ranging from the truculent clutter of David Wojnarowicz, an inchoate poète maudit, to the hysterical giggles of Kenny Scharf, whose maladroit cartooning no longer surprises. Marginally better, because they are firmly styled, are a shadowy woman at a window on Times Square by Jane Dickson and a painterly pastiche of a pulp paperback cover by Walter Robinson; they channel raw melancholy and righteous wit in properly low-down veins. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring are important special cases, alike in being middle-class sophisticates who mythologized themselves as wild-child graffitists and became international stars. (Both died young, Basquiat of an overdose and Haring of aids.) Haring functioned as a one-lad advertising firm for sex and fun; his forte was less art than graphic design. Basquiat was a superb artist who reinvigorated traditions of New York School painting. His talent often complicates the vampings of a dubious persona—petulant, soulful, semi-literate urban primitive—with a self-aware intelligence as unfathomable as that of a Miles Davis solo.
The ghost of Andy Warhol, a demiurgic role model for the East Villagers, wafts through the show; his death, in 1987, no less than that year’s stock-market crash, italicized the scene’s collapse. Warhol had latched on to Basquiat as a career-freshening protégé and collaborator, and Warholian cunning informed the ultra-smart inventions of Neo-Geo, the milieu’s one launched movement that attained exit velocity, preoccupying the wider art world for a couple of seasons. Jeff Koons, the magus of an aesthetic that transforms commodities into art, which is then presented as the ultimate commodity, was overqualified for the East Village on arrival. His stunning début at the gallery International with Monument, in 1985, included “Lifeboat,” an inflatable raft, meticulously cast in bronze, that feels intent on sinking without delay to the center of the earth. (The next-best Neo-Geo artist, Peter Halley, made blocky, jarringly colored paintings whose geometric imagery evokes both microchips and prison cells; these have dated.) And Warhol’s Factory-tested protocols of instant, perishable celebrity infused East Village performance and social styles. A happy discovery, for me, is a tape of “TV Party,” a cable-access show hosted by Glenn O’Brien, whose mix of stoned talk and often terrific guest performances by musicians and oddball buskers fitfully evinces a Talking Heads-like perfect pitch in deriding pop culture and eating it, too.
The contemporary art world of the early eighties blew apart into four main fragments, of which the East Village was one. The others were a defensive establishment of older artists, a fashionable confederacy of neo-expressionists, and a gang of theory-mongering Duchampians. All surfed waves of new money. Eventually, even the fragments disintegrated, becoming the sluggish mishmash that has prevailed in art ever since. The East Village contributed the novelty of a New York avant-garde that forsook global perspectives to party locally. (As such, it was a franchise of similar slum Babylons in European cities.) It was directly opposed by a craze in academe for moralizing discourses—deconstructionist, Marxist, Freudian, feminist. Delectable tensions surfaced between these sensibilities. A leading exegete of theory on the scene, Craig Owens, hatched the keenest critique of East Village art, in one word: “Puerilism.” (Why the slur’s victims didn’t promptly embrace it, on the model of “Fauvism,” I don’t know; maybe they lacked ready access to a dictionary.) Such starchy acuity from one who was himself young points to the split personality of a generation: part hellbent on polymorphous perversity, part hankering for the majesty of erudite age.
For me, the single most shocking idea to emerge from the East Village is not recalled in this show. It was a proposal by Walter Robinson to create a lucrative market in a new species of folk art: the crudely lettered, pleading cardboard signs wielded by the homeless who then teemed the city’s streets. The signs had everything: funky elegance, patent authenticity, social content, convenient scale, and reliable supply. I tried, and failed, to contemplate those tissues of misery as found art. The gesture of selling them seemed at once grossly ingenuous and vilely cynical, disgracing both art and the market. But suddenly the project (which went nowhere) strikes me as the supremely honest exposure of an anxiety that most of the artists in “East Village USA” squirm to deny or finesse: a double bind of élitism and populism. Drives to be at once aesthetically impeccable and socially justified generated alternating currents of bad art and bad faith, which only lordly money could be counted on to adjudicate. Some such quandary afflicts all ambitious art in American democracy. The East Village got drunk on it. In vino veritas.