As a culture, we can’t stop thinking about the 1980s New York art scene. New retrospectives keep popping up—at the Whitney (“Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s”), the Hirschorn (“Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s”), and the Museum of Modern Art (“Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983”). Television shows such as HBO’s The Deuce and Netflix’s Russian Doll foreground the scene, as do films such as Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Velvet Buzzsaw. You can even buy Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat T-Shirts at Uniqlo.
It’s no wonder. The scene established cultural trends that continue to reverberate: the rise of an art market with eye-popping prices for even the newest artists, the submersion of the activist art that dominated the 1970s, the role of art in gentrifying neighborhoods, the prestige of graffiti as art, and the tragedy of AIDS. Although Richard Florida made the “creative economy” a buzzword for the 2000s, the molds for the creative economy, whereby art and economic development go hand in hand, were stamped in 1980s New York. Aside from standouts such as Patti Smith and Kathy Acker, the era’s literary scene has been less high-profile, but the literary works written during and inspired by the scene continue to offer readers a valuable map of the tensions, problems, and possibilities of downtown that linger long after downtown has become mostly a site of high-cost lofts and boutique restaurants. What follows is a list of novels that capture the scene in all its messy, multifaceted glory.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, DICTEE (1982): One of the more radically experimental and moving novels to be published in the 1980s, Cha’s masterwork has become a crucial landmark in Asian-American literature, beloved for the way it uses an innovative form to convey the disruptions of emigration and minority experience. Other Asian-American writers tended to foreground the singularity of the immigrant’s experience, packaging it for readers who sought “authenticity” in their writing. Of, course, that’s what mainstream publishers wanted from writers like Amy Tan. Instead, Cha chose to work with the small, radical Tanam Press, where she also worked in the early 80s. By incorporating multiple languages, images, and a fragmented style, Cha refuses to give her readers the consolations of The Joy Luck Club. Too often, though, DICTEE has been severed from histories of the avant-garde. Cha was embedded within the downtown art scene, and DICTEE reflects Cha’s interest in the French theory, innovations in photography, and techniques of collage and appropriation being employed by her artist friends. DICTEE functions as much as art object as it does novel. Additionally, Cha documents the remarkable crosscurrents that characterized downtown; if you could afford the cheap rents, you could live in New York and make something new.
Richard Prince, Why I Go to the Movies Alone (1983): Prince is one of the most prominent members of The Pictures Generation, the movement which put appropriation art on the map, and whose members also included Cindy Sherman and Sherri Levine. Before he made it big, Prince wrote a small, idiosyncratic novel, also published by Tanam Press. Overlapping in theme with both his rephotographs of magazine ads and the jokes he painted on canvases, Why I Go to the Movies Alone captures a running problem for the artists of the 1980s, one foregrounded by the Hirschorn’s “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s”—how to capture a sense of accelerated spectacle. It was the age of the unreal and the simulacrum; artists carried well-worn copies of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations. Why I Go to the Movies Alone offers a kind of summary of the themes Prince explored through his art: the themes of the spectacle’s alienation and bewilderment. As Prince put it in Why I Go to the Movies Alone: “Magazines, movies, t.v., and records. It wasn’t everybody’s condition but to him it sometimes seemed like it was, and if it really wasn’t, that was alright, but it was going to be hard for him to connect with someone who passed themselves off as an example or a version of a life put together from reasonable matter.”
Kathy Acker, Don Quixote (1986): While artists have been appropriating the work of others since at least Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, appropriation emerged as a crucial theme in the art of the 80s. Under the lingering influence of Andy Warhol, appropriation art responded to the increasing saturation of advertisements, rife with the sense that art had run out of objects to make. Prince photographed advertisements, blew them up, and called them his own. Levine rephotographed the works of Walker Evans and the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. Although the poet Kenneth Goldsmith has recently made a high-profile career out of appropriation, Acker got there first—though her work has often been subsumed under themes of feminist antinarrative. Acker told Ellen Friedman that when she wrote Don Quixote, “what I really wanted to do was a Sherrie Levine painting.” While all of Acker’s works employ appropriation, Don Quixote marks Acker’s perfection of the technique, rewriting Cervantes with a female knight and appropriating lines from Shakespeare, Milton, Genet, Dante, and others.
Lynne Tillman, Haunted Houses (1987): Over the past forty years, Lynne Tillman has emerged as a writer’s writer—and a top-rate art critic. In the 1980s, Tillman was close friends with artists such as Kiki Smith and the late, great, critic Craig Owens. While Madame Realism collects the art-critical writing she did for Art in America and other venues, her 1987 novel Haunted Houses shows readers the difficult path forged by women writers like Tillman. Everyone wanted to reject the suburbs, but women especially, since the suburbs were the main site of the oppression documented by everyone from Betty Friedan to Sylvia Plath. Yet as Tillman’s title suggests, those patriarchal ghosts couldn’t be exorcised so easily. Haunted Houses documents the frustrations, disappointments, sexual confusions, and partial triumphs of three women who struggle to find their places in an art world dominated by men. Returning to it reminds readers that even the most freewheeling artistic bohemias have limitations, and that the feminist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s had hardly settled the question of whether, in the words of Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Tansley, from To the Lighthouse, “women can’t paint, women can’t write.”
Gary Indiana, Horse Crazy (1989): Between 1984 and 1987, Gary Indiana was the art critic for The Village Voice. If you followed the art scene—or just enjoyed a good takedown—his columns were hard to ignore. He savaged everyone from Julian Schnabel to Richard Serra, and had especially little patience for the hotshot young artists who emerged out of the Lower East Side’s gallery scene. (In one column, he compared being around these artists to “being trapped in a wretchedly ventilated freight elevator with a capacity crowd of amphetamine abusers.”) Horse Crazy, Indiana’s first novel, offers a more somber take on the scene. The unnamed protagonist splits his time between mourning friends who are dying of AIDS, pursuing a love affair that he cannot consummate because of AIDS, and lamenting his own failures as an artist. It’s a great book: a document of a precise moment in time, when the gallery movement was in full swing, AIDS was terrifying, and gentrification was still an emerging phenomenon.
Jennifer Clement, Widow Basquiat (2001): If there’s one artist who epitomizes the rise and fall of the 80s art scene, it’s Jean-Michel Basquiat, who rose rapidly to prominence in the early 1980s and was dead by 1988. Widow Basquiat is an experimental biography of Suzanne Mallouk, Basquiat’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. The book is full of intimate details about Basquiat—his drug use, his painting in Armani suits, his love for African-American athletes. What’s most notable, though, is the way Clement conveys Basquiat’s vivid awareness of the racial dynamics around him. About MoMA, Basquia quips: “This is another white man’s cotton plantation.” Of Keith Haring, Basquiat surmises that “it took a white guy to bring graffiti to SoHo.” Window Basquiat moves beyond the clichés of Basquiat as savant (a “radiant child,” as the art critic Rene Ricard put it), demonstrating, as have Basquiat’s best critics, that his projects were located firmly in traditions of African-American anti-racism.
Edgardo Vega Yunqué, The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle (2004): Puerto Rican Americans were the highest-profile casualties of downtown New York’s art-driven gentrification. Yunqué’s Omaha Bigelow offers a playful, but biting, account of this side of the artworld story. The novel foregrounds the power of Nuyorican literary production and skewers the white artists who took over what was largely a Puerto Rican neighborhood in the late 1970s. The title character is a hapless émigré from Nebraska who finds his artistic swing only after his Puerto Rican girlfriend performs a magic ritual that makes him irresistible to women (okay, it makes his penis larger). Yunqué situates Bigelow’s story within a fantastical account of Puerto Ricans living in the projects and building their own navy in order to kick the US out of Vinques. In Omaha Bigelow brujas change from monkeys, to squirrels, to peacocks, and back again, and the interior of a project apartment opens directly to Puerto Rico. Yunqué captures the resistant spirit of Nuyorican poets like Miguel Piñero, who struggled to document the experience of populations displaced by gentrification, and were often themselves figured as colorful “natives” who served to inspire white artists. By the 1990s, in the novel’s world, nothing has changed for Puerto Ricans—they’re still idealized by white bohemians and still suffering from wage depression and poor living conditions—but Yunqué imagines a place in which their art is the most powerful of all, reminding readers of the vibrant arts scenes around the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the New Rican Village, and CHARAS, which refuted notions that downtown’s Puerto Rican Americans served merely as local color.
Tim Murphy, Christodora (2016): In 2019’s Russian Doll, a character posits that one of the reasons that art seems to run aground after the 1980s is that so many of the artists died of AIDS. Among others, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres all had their lives and careers cut short by the disease. Part of what makes Indiana’s Horse Crazy so tragic is the complete absence of the powerful AIDS activism that was, by 1989, in full swing. Tim Murphy’s 2016 novel, Christodora, is one of several recent books that looks back to the 80s art scene. Murphy anchors his account in a pair of artists, Jared and Milly, who settle in the Lower East Side in the early 1990s. From there, Murphy—who has long reported on the AIDS crisis—walks readers through the evolution of AIDS, from its terrible, instant rise to the long fight for treatment, and Murphy places Latinx and working-class characters front and center. Christodora offers readers a long view on downtown, charting the possibilities and shortfalls entailed by the entwinement of AIDS, gentrification, and bohemia. Among the many novels to take up downtown in recent years—Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) and Garth Risk Halberg’s City on Fire (2015)—Murphy’s is both the most overlooked and the most attuned to the cross-cultural dynamics around AIDS, art, and gentrification.
Andrew Strombeck is Professor of English at Wright State University. His book, DIY on the Lower East Side: Books, Buildings, and Art after the 1975 Fiscal Crisis is forthcoming from SUNY Press in 2020. His work has appeared in such venues as The Los Angeles Review of Books, Post45 Peer Reviewed, The Millions, Contemporary Literature, African American Review, and Cultural Critique.
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