Art / Party Out Of Bounds

Dance This Mess Around: MoMA’s “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art In the East Village, 1978-1983”

Kenny Scharf (American, born 1958). Having Fun. 1979. Acrylic on canvas. Collection Bruno Testore Schmidt, courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles

I’m not used to suffering from invasive flashbacks inside a major museum. But, pulling back the heavy curtain, leading into Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Closet, a cozy yet mind-altering intergalactic Day-Glo-painted trash utopia, I was immediately sent through a time warp to June 2011, boogying to The B-52s “Planet Claire” and Martha and the Vandellas “Jimmy Mack” courtesy of DJ (and artist) Scott Ewalt in Scharf’s East Williamsburg basement The Cosmic Cavern. Descending Scharf’s steep basement stairs, Scharf himself greeted all guests by anointing our faces with fluorescent paint to match the neon surroundings, taking us 53 miles west of Venus. If you remember, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, June 2011 not only represented Pride month like every year, but it also marked the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York. And Mary, you better believe we were celebrating (including a duo who were maybe celebrating it a little too hard by getting busy in the corner).

Well, even though none of that debauchery was happening in the Cosmic Closet, based on Scharf’s original closet in the apartment he shared with Keith Haring, my involuntary bout of nostalgia gave a peek into what the denizens of the short-lived but storied Club 57 must feel like viewing their raucous work and history in the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition Club 57: Film, Performance and Art In The East Village, 1978-1983.

Installation view of Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Closet, 1979/2017 (photo by author)

Admittedly, I had heard rumors about a Club 57 exhibition happening at the storied institution for years now. Then as now, I was shocked that MoMA–not exactly known for its support of fun-loving, boundary-pushing Downtown artists–would choose to focus on a group of artists and performers creating a place for themselves and their work in a basement of a church on St. Marks Place. I mean, anything that isn’t Matisse or Picasso is a real step outside the box for the museum let alone a club that was, as Steven Hager writes in Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene, “more interested in the sort of sensibility embodied by the B-52s” (72).

Curated by Ron Magliozzi, Sophie Cavoulacos and Ann Magnuson, as guest curator, Club 57 presents a staggering display of the artistic production linked to the club, from posters to paintings to videos and archival photographs. Beyond just the work on the walls, the museum is also hosting months of film programming, including a series by Lypsinka.

Keith Haring, Acts of Live Art at Club 57. 1980. Photograph by Joseph Szkodzinski. Courtesy the artist.

Even though the two exhibition spaces, located in the museum’s lower theater galleries, are chock-full of work, the show isn’t a haphazard conglomeration of East Village nostalgia, but a studied attempt at faithfully portraying the range of creative figures moving in and around of the basement club. And trust me, as someone who has an enduring interest in nightlife, it can be hard to pinpoint this history, for which there are few reliable books or comprehensive studies. Curators have to largely rely on the memories of those who were there, made even more complicated by the decimation of the East Village scene by HIV/AIDS. And looking at the show, the curators clearly made this herculean effort.

Now for a bit of background, Club 57 evolved out of a multi-night vaudeville revue “New Wave Vaudeville,” organized by Ann Magnuson, Susan Hannaford and Tom Scully at Irving Plaza in late 1978. Irving Plaza’s building manager Stanley Strychacki also ran another space in the basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church in the then-Eastern European-dominated East Village. Working in the ramshackle space at 57 St. Marks, the trio first launched a weekly Monster Movie Club, which showed films like the classic Invasion of the Saucer Men. As Tim Lawrence details in his Life and Death On The New York Dance Floor, “the night soon started to attract SVA students, who took to punctuating films with riotous comments as joints and mushrooms accentuated the fun. The venue quickly settled into a quiet routine that featured movie nights, theatrical performances, St. Mark’s Poetry Project events, and, beginning in August, meetings of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Lower East Side, a Magnuson-led feminist group that resembled a punk version of the Junior League. ‘There was this guy at one of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project nights doing this off-the-wall stuff and they all hated him,’ recalls Magnuson, who was managing the venue that night. ‘When he came up to the bar I said, ‘You’re my favorite poet!’ That was the first time I met Keith and we became friends’” (31).

Club 57 calendar, March 1980. Design by Ann Magnuson. © Ann Magnuson

With Haring came other School of Visual Arts kids and their friends like John McLaughlin–soon to be John Sex–Kenny Scharf, Drew Straub and Sex’s girlfriend at the time Wendy Wild who “flung herself into performance opportunities and took on the celebrated role of preparing the mushroom punch” (32). With the influx of artists and performers, the club became home to D-I-Y art events like Keith Haring’s curated Xerox Art show and performance nights including Ladies Wrestling and John Sex’s Acts of Live Art, which, as Tim Lawrence writes, “integrated all manner of weird and wild performances, including wheelchair-bound convulsions, the Bertha Butt Boogie caveman dance, naked rapping, majorette tap dancing to disco and a matador striptease” (33).

John Sex (American, 1956–1990). Acts of Live Art, 1980. Silkscreen. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Department of Film Special Collections

While the club’s closest competitor–the Mudd Club–was more no wave “cool,” Club 57 was obsessed with retro kitsch, rockabilly camp and psychedelic-addled fun, typified by DJ Dany Johnson’s eclectic playlists. As renowned doorman Haoui Montaug remembers in Art After Midnight, “Club 57 was more like a fun, drug-crazed clubhouse. It had a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland let’s-put-on-a-show feeling” (72). And silliness was key even to the point of irritation as Carmel Johnson-Schmidt explains: “They would take mushrooms and play Twister, rolling on the floor, screaming and laughing for hours. Sometimes they were so ridiculous you just wanted to wring their necks” (72). Of course with this exhaustive goofiness, I always connected to Club 57 as a direct antecedent to Filthy Dreams.

However, while most of Club 57’s antics were silly fun, that shouldn’t be mistaken for a complete lack of seriousness about their art. Art became a mainstay of the club, as revealed in MoMA’s exhibition. The bar was even a place to display work as seen in Frank Holliday’s darkly abstract series of paintings TVC15, based off of David Bowie’s cocaine-fueled alien groove off of his album Station to Station. 

John Sex (American, 1956–1990). Truckers Ball, 1981. Silkscreen. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Department of Film Special Collections

On some level, the curators embrace this chaotic history–the hanging style is reminiscent of Downtown clubs with flyers and posters papering the walls. Unsurprisingly, like many shows about club culture, these flyers and posters–many created by John Sex himself including the hilarious promo for Katy K’s “Trucker’s Ball”–make up a large part of the exhibition. An expansive photo slideshow on MoMA’s first floor cycles through numerous archival photographs that document the action from Joseph Szkodzinski’s image of Keith Haring performing with his head shoved in an empty television set to April Palmieri’s photograph of a rockabilly-outfitted Katy K and John Sex lounging in the window of uptown clothing boutique Fiorucci.

Beyond the archival materials, Club 57 features numerous artworks from the Club 57 regulars including Tom Rubnitz’s manic video Made For TV, starring Ann Magnuson, Keith Haring’s painted cabinet door, made for performer Joey Arias, operatic alien Klaus Nomi’s cape, donned for his iconic and startling early performances, Fab 5 Freddy’s tag-riddled painting and Tabboo!’s early portraits. With this sheer amount of work, the show portrays how these fledgling artists not only experimented with aesthetics, but also with fluid notions of gender and sexual identities. This vibrant scene wasn’t the uber-masculine denim-donning West Village gay clones, but a completely queer world made within an East Village basement.

Tabboo! (Stephen Tashjian) (American, born 1959). Self-Portrait, 1982. Acrylic on found advertising paper. Courtesy the artist and Gordon Robichaux, New York

Despite the real attention given to their art, absurdity also reigned at Club 57. As Ann Magnuson reflects in Lawrence’s Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor, “We tended to take nothing seriously and that can be an affront to people who are taking things way too seriously” (38). Which may explain some of the shortcomings of the exhibition. MoMa is not exactly known for its love of trash, kitsch and camp–all three of which exemplify Club 57’s programming, like The Model World of Glue in which guests were handed “a plastic model, glue and a paper bag (for sniffing)” (72).

In some respects, the exhibition shows the double-edged sword of the institutionalization of these nightlife spaces. On one hand, it’s about time an institution as renowned as MoMA gave these artists and performers the Uptown recognition they always deserved, opening up subversive East Village culture to tourists and New Yorkers alike. But, on the other hand, something often gets lost in translation as academically trained art historians attempt to force something wild and rowdy into an institutional framework. This doesn’t mean Club 57: Film, Performance and Art In The East Village, 1978-1983 fails by any means, but it does make for some awkward moments as you can literally see the MoMA curators’ striving to make sense of something that was just meant to be amusing.

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

For example, in his catalogue essay, Ron Magliozzi tries to analyze the club’s interest in gore and monster movies as “symptomatic of a loss of faith in society and politics, or a demand for change at any cost, disassembly and reconfiguration were reoccurring motifs in much of the work made and exhibited at Club 57” (19). Oh baby, maybe those movies like are just hilarious. When talking about films like Dr. Butcher MD (Medical Deviate), you should probably take the art historian cap off for just a second.

The show also stumbles in its attempts to engage with HIV/AIDS. On some level, I’ll admit that the year range from 1978-1983 presents some difficulties since the early years of the club existed in a naïve halcyon state before the onslaught of the AIDS pandemic that would wipe out many in the East Village artistic community (including numerous artists and performers connected to Club 57 like John Sex, Ethyl Eichelberger, Keith Haring, Klaus Nomi, etc.). These dates mean curators must balance the whimsical fun of the late 1970s with the impending crisis.

Elvis Presley Memorial Party at Club 57. Pictured: Kristine Dreuille (center), Drew Straub (right). 1980. Photograph by and courtesy Joseph Szkodzinski

The curators address HIV/AIDS with, what they describe in the wall text as, “a video call to action” in the form of Tom Rubnitz’s collaboration with David Wojnarowicz Listen To This. Made in 1992 and unfinished due to Rubnitz’s death (David would also die from complications from AIDS that year), the video features Wojnarowicz as a suit-wearing talking head figure ranting on the exclusive power of television’s influence, reminiscent of his own essay “Do Not Trust The Dangerousness of the 12-Inch Politician.”

“I’m speaking to you from a little box called television,” Wojnarowicz begins. The video, on one hand, does show how the adoration of overmediated TV culture, which was so influential to many in Club 57, turned sour just a couple years later with the media’s mistreatment of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and People With AIDS. Yet, the piece, made eight years after Club 57 closed, is an enormous anachronism in the exhibition and with this time lapse, unfortunately bypasses essential artistic and activist history of the pandemic. It just feels forced.

Stefano Castronovo, Klaus Nomi, c.1983 (unfinished), oil on canvas (photo by author)

The curators would have been better off sticking with Stefano Castronovo’s nearby haunting portrait of Klaus Nomi who died from complications from AIDS the same year the club closed in 1983. Left unfinished after Nomi’s death, the painting–with Klaus’s white and black makeup-adorned face hovering like a specter–is a chilling and ultimately, emotionally moving elegy to a preternaturally talented artist and the devastation of his (and many other’s) deaths.

Ultimately, though, the power of the show lies in its representation of a community that took the agency of exhibiting art and performance into their own hands. From Daniel Abraham’s cartoonish drawings of Club 57 regulars to video footage of nights at the club to even, the infectious joy of the former club patrons attending the press preview last week, it was clear that Club 57 was less business and more a familial support system. As Ron Magliozzi writes in his essay, “Hominess became a lasting marker of Club 57” (11).

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

John A. Mozzer’s 18-minute audio recording of phone calls with John Sex gives an intimate view of this community. Talking to Sex about an upcoming show (“I think I’ll have two of the girls do a striptease,” pitches Sex), Mozzer clearly hints at wanting in on the project. As he explains on the wall label, “I ask about the show that he is planning to do…because I am interested in being part of his act. I allude to him having seen me go-go dance in a g-string on the bar at Club 57….” Their conversation is conspiratorial–a representation of the collective organizational energy put into these D-I-Y events.

And at the end of the day, that might be the lasting importance of both the exhibition and Club 57’s legacy–not as a time capsule of an unreachable past, but as an inspiration for younger artist to construct their own all-encompassing, all-questioning, freewheeling spaces. Screw the art world, screw galleries, screw networking with the gatekeepers–they’re all behind anyway and will take decades to finally catch up. Go find a space and do it yourself, but make sure you remember to have fun while you’re doing it.

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