Arts Watch: The New Old Bowery at the New Museum

Martin Wong: Photocollage, 7 x 11 in, Courtesy Fales Collection. Photo by Tim Schreier.

On a recent trip to the New Museum to see its Come Closer: Art Around the Bowery, 1969-1989 exhibition, I was reminded of the Bowery of my youth. There were certainly no art museums dotting its landscape (or star-chef restaurants or luxury boutique hotels for that matter), but there was plenty of art. Only I didn’t know it. What I do remember is how run down it seemed—tired looking buildings, garbage strewn about, off-putting restaurant supply stores (a few of which are still holding on) and, except for a few “colorful” characters who were hanging around the flop houses, empty streets. It all seemed so desolate. Of course, these images came from inside the safety of my mom’s car, as we drove on the Bowery on our way to or from Chinatown or someplace else. Little did I know that inside those buildings I was staring at was a different story completely-–a thriving and lively artist community.

Given the run-down nature of the neighborhood in the ’70s and ’80s—the Bowery had been in the slide for years before I encountered it, rents were cheap and and spaces aplenty, so naturally, in moved the artists. Painters, photographers, performance artists, musicians, and filmmakers began working together, exchanging ideas, and drawing inspiration from each other and their relationships to the Bowery and its surroundings.

Adam Purple on the roof of his home at 184 Forsyth St., 1982. Photo: Harvey Wang via the New Museum.

Much of what is on display in Come Closer is ephemera and performance documentation: Harvey Wang’s photos of Adam Purple’s long gone The Garden of Eden (1975-86); Marc H. Miller’s Assorted photos/announcements from 98 Bowery, Keith Haring’s Door from 325 Broome St.  But it is all a fascinating glimpse into the lives of artists who were producing art that was changing the landscape of this “famed thoroughfare.”  Several of these artists still live and work on or near the Bowery, including Barbara Ess, Arleen Schloss and Curte Hoppe, to name a few.

When I think about the Bowery of my childhood now, especially every time I’m walking on it, which is quite often these days to travel back and forth between the LES and West Side, to visit the New Museum, or eat at Pulinos—yes, I have partaken of (and enjoyed) Keith McNally’s version of brick oven pizza, I have to smile.  The street certainly looks and feels different, and I welcome those changes.  But I also don’t want to forget its past as shady as I remember it, and thanks to the New Museum—the exhibition is part of the Museum’s ongoing Bowery Artist Tribute series, I now have some new images to hold on to.

Art Around the Bowery touches on just a small piece of New York’s “downtown” art history.  I wish the Museum had filled up all five of its floors with artwork from that explosive time, but I will gladly take what I can get.

Come Closer: Art Around the Bowery, 1969-1989 runs through January 6th.

Robin Schatell has lived in the Lower East Side for nine years, and has worked in the arts for over 20 years,  developing innovative programs and events from concept to production, and presenting adventurous new work by emerging and established artists.