The East Village Galleries

Jan 22, 2019 8:31AM

"It seemed to be a time of no limitations. Everything was possible; more than that, it was probable." Gracie Mansion in an interview for artnet news, 2013

Poster to David Wojnarowicz’s exhibition at Civilian Warfare, May 1983.

An impressing number of the American artists who wouldachieve major breakthroughs in the mid-80s and go on to havea segnificant impact on the aesthetic movements of the 90s are connected to the East Village scene. In this culturally fertilearea, new galleries were sprouting from the concrete. In a pinch, bathrooms, church cellars, and even rented limousines served as exhibition spaces for presentations that only lasted as long as the opening: 24 hours or so. These art spaces were usually operatedby artists, who would drive reviewers and curators betweeneach other like good neighbours – or partygoers. These were a precious few, formative years. In 1985, the foundations of this unique biosphere were shaken to their cores. AIDS claimed it's first victims, heralding the end of the East Village. One gallery after another closed down, or moved to better neighbourhoods. When the Fun Gallery closed in 1987, somebody spray painted “TheFun is Gone” on the wall. Then, the second wave arrived. Fancier galleries, showing artists like Chia, Clemente, Louise Bourgeois, and Alice Neel.

Gracie Mansion in 1985. Photo: People Maga

Gracie Mansion. perhaps the most legendary personality in all the East Village, the one who comes to mind whenever the East Village is mentioned. As the 70s wound to a close, Joanne Mayhew-Young was making her living as a clerk at a legal firm, and spending her free time hanging her friends’ artworks. Her gallery business started outin the attic of one of her lawyer friends (Jim Stark, who would go on to produce movies by Jim Jarmusch, including Down By Law). After a few successful exhibitions in her bathroom in 1982 (The Loo Division), her landlord lost patience with all the disturbances (sometimes, 1,500 party animals and art collectors would invade the building on a single evening), and she opened her own space. The financing for the gallery was secured by a deal through which Stark bought artworks for a fixed sum each month. She and the gallery both took the name Gracie Mansion after the New York Mayor’s residence.

Christof Kohlhöfer
Striking, 1984
Rhonda Zwillinger
I need a tropical vacation I, 1984

Neo-expressionism was both an extension of and a counterreaction to expressionism. Art could not inspire art; its power came from the streets, from graffiti. Along with her partner Sur Rodney Sur, she rode the wave of this reaction by showing artists like Marylin Minter, Hope Sandrow, Rhonda Zwillinger, and Stephen Lack. Many experts claim that she, more than anybody, is the embodiment of the East Village’s golden age. All her exhibitions looked completely different, and everything from floor to ceiling was repainted for each one. In old black-and-white photographs, we can see a Jackson Pollock-patterned couch.

Tim Greathouse, a photographer, opened the photography gallery Oggi Domani in a storefront on East 11th Street in 1984. This would become a vital nexus for experimental work that went beyond the scope of documentary photography. In 1986, he moved to a larger space nearby that he renamed the T. Greathouse gallery. He died of AIDS in 1998.

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

"Keith was at Futura’s opening, as they were good friends, and I asked them to stand back to back, as if in a western. There was something in common for me between a spray can and a gun, and I also thought that back-to-back fitted the way their careers were moving: Futura in the black world of hip-hop and Keith more in the white downtown world."

Quote from a feauture with Sophie Bramly in The Guardian, 2016.

Card advertising a Fun Gallery crew party, 80s. Designed by Dondi White.

Fun Gallery was, even though Gracie Mansion may be the most well-known, the first gallery on the scene. The gallery popped up on 254 10th Street in the aftermath of punk. It was 1981, and Patti Astor, with her platinum blonde hair, her pitch-perfect sense for PR, and her background as an underground actress in the 70s, was the gallery owner. She and her partner Bill Stelling started out strong, witha small group of graffiti artists. Some of the artists involved who would go on to make history were Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Futura 2000.

Richard Hambleton
Elegy, 1984

Piezo Electric Opened in 1983. The somewhat cryptic name is actually a scientific term that denotes an electrical charge induced in crystalline substances by the application of pressure. The couple Doug Milford and Lisa McDonald were particularly drawn to nudity, sex, and melodrama. Notable artists include Richard Hambleton and Kiki Smith.

Peter Schuyff, Kali II, 1984. Installation at CFHILL. Part of the exhibition 'East Village Revisited'.

Pat Hearn also opened in 1983 after extensive renovations of a derelict building. This was the easternmost and the most commercial of the galleries mentioned here, and probably the fanciest gallery in the area, too. Artsit included George Condo and Peter Schuyff.

P.P.O.W. was opened in 1983 as well, by Penny Pilkington and Wendy Olsoff. The duo took on David Wojnarowicz when Gracie Mansion closed down.

Outside the gallery Cilvilian Warfare in 1983. Photograph published in the catalogue to the Neo York exhibition, 1984. Work on the façade: David Wojnarowicz.

Civilian Warfare Studio opened in 1982. The name was chosen based on the location: ''The name seems to fit the area,'' saysMr Savard. ''But actually, the street is full of families with small children, who are horrified by the drug scene. They like us because we bring a little bit of legitimate business to the neighbourhood.'' (NY Times, 1983).

Many of the hard-working galleries here have passed into oblivion, and this is a great shame, as it represents a loss of a vital piece of art history. It also causes a gap in our understanding of where great art originates. One gallery like this was Art and Commerce, the first video gallery, which showed video art pioneer Dara Birnbaum, as well as David Wojnarowicz.