October 31st  –  April 1, 2018  The Museum of Modern Art

In the Digital Age, where everything is seemingly compartmentalized and sentiments take the form of emojis, looking back at the unruly downtown scene of Club 57 seems like an exercise in New York soul-searching.  Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983 at MoMA, appropriately installed in the film exhibition galleries of the basement, celebrates a time where underground culture flourished in the East Village.  A spontaneous atmosphere led to a convergence of art, film, video, performance, and music into what we now call interdisciplinary arts – a very clinical term for such an unrestricted happening.  Located in a basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church on St. Marks Place, Club 57 became a mecca for experimentation and DIY fun.

Lady Wrestling at Club 57. Pictured: Tom Scully, Tish and Snooky Bellomo. 1980. Photograph by and courtesy Harvey Wang

Organized by Ron Magliozzi, and Sophie Cavoulacos with Ann Magnuson, guest curator, the exhibition has a unique film series that was essentially the core idea behind the exhibition.  Two School of Visual Art grads, Susan Hannaford and Tom Scully ran the film programming at Club 57.  The duo tapped into European avant-garde and thumbed through budget film catalogs from Los Angeles looking for trashy horror or the cheapest flicks they could find from no-name directors.  In turn, they created a campy stew of high and low brow that was not meant for theoretical analysis but enjoyed for a variety of pleasures.

Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983 Keith Haring, Acts of Live Art at Club 57. 1980. Photograph by Joseph Szkodzinski. Courtesy the artist.

Club 57 was a space of non-discrimination, a safe haven to express the mass consciousness of the time.  Punk, contrary to most people’s association of aggression, was all-inclusive. The do-it-yourself attitude prevailed within an encouraging, familial vibe.  Many budding auteurs produced and screened their own videos at Club 57 and on access television.  Most went directly against the growing conformity of the Reagan era, revealing a cheeky sense humor as in Pulsallama starring Min Thometz and Tom Rubnitz’s Made for TV.   Bands like The Misfits and The Fleshtones performed in between plays by Sam Shepard.  In many ways it was theater in the round with drag queens.

Youth against Death. 1980. Photograph by Katherine Dumas. From left: Nancy Ulrich, Scott Covert, Frank Holliday, and Natalya Maystrenko. Courtesy the Estate of Katherine Dumas.

Most will point to the men in the scene, Jean Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, and  Keith Haring, who received commercial success but there was many players including Ann Magnuson, who managed the club creating its memorable collage calendars. The punk scene raised women out of the shadows of 60’s Rock & Roll dominated by The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.  Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, and Joan Jett, women with attitude who formed their own bands were inspiration to others.  Magnuson’s own band BongWater achieved acclaim before she made the leap to acting full time.

Club 57 calendar, March 1980. Design by Ann Magnuson. © Ann Magnuson
The Rule of Mr. Klaus #19, 1980. Photograph by Anthony Scibelli, from a series for a photo-roman written by Peter Nolan Smith (pictured). Collection Peter Nolan Smith, courtesy the artist

A carefree life,  in part achieved from freedom from information and financial woes, was the norm.   Most people who lived in the Lower East Side in the late 70’s and early 80’s didn’t own a television let alone a computer.  Low rents contributed to a sense of creative freedom.   Unfortunately this abiding sense of unconcern turned on a dime when AIDS ravaged many and heroin became the drug of choice.

Today, within the constant threat of terrorism, where “backpacks and other random containers are subject to search by the police”, creativity and artistic production can easily blur into the political spectrum.  Club 57 brings us back to Lady Wrestling, Putt-Putt Reggae Night and Name that Noise.  Hopefully, we can find such insouciance again in the often starched professionalism of today’s stratified art world.  There is always a place for openness.

Valentine’s Day Repose, 1982. Photograph by April Palmieri. Pictured: Katy K and John Sex in the window of Fiorucci. Courtesy the artist.

-JSB