East Village Art War Rages

Artist Mark Kostabi, who first made his mark in the East Village in the heady 1980s, was less disappointed about being excluded from “East Village USA,” the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s retrospective about the era, than he was about being shut out from the show’s December 9 opening.

Standing outside the museum’s temporary quarters at the Chelsea Art Museum on West 22nd Street with Molly Barnes, the art dealer who discovered his work in 1982, Kostabi was stunned to learn that despite a mention in the exhibition’s catalog, he was not invited into the Dan Cameron-curated retrospective.

Criticism of New Museum of Contemporary Art focuses on sexual politics

“I literally cried. The tears weren’t dripping down my face, but they were welled up,” he said in a recent interview. “I felt like an outsider and I said, ‘I am an outsider now and I was even then.’”

Kostabi, the youngest living artist to see his work purchased by the Museum of Modern Art—when he was 24—is not alone in feeling like an outsider these days. Several other slighted artists—also with only a token presence in the show—consider themselves pivotal figures in the edgy, rebellious East Village art scene that enjoyed a vibrant, albeit brief heyday that was cut short, in large part, by the impact of AIDS.

Among the embittered artists is Rick Prol, a member of the first wave of East Village artists and a contemporary of the late graffiti artist turned star Jean-Michel Basquiat. Prol and his girlfriend, Jan Lynn Sokota, launched a rival exhibit on December 7, “East Village ASU (And Some Uthers),” at his B-Side Gallery on East Sixth Street in response to what they see as an uneven exhibition by Cameron.

“Dan Cameron made a list and unfortunately that list was incomplete,” said Sokota, also an artist. “[‘East Village USA’] will be the documentation of history and that documentation is inaccurate.”

The B-Side show, according to Sokota, more accurately captures the spirit of the era. Organized in the “salon style” of the time, the small gallery space at Avenue B is packed with 73 pieces by 35 artists, some from the era and some newer artists not associated with the East Village movement.

Prol attributes his exclusion from the New Museum’s roster in part to sexual politics.

“He’s homosexual and I’m straight,” said Prol of Cameron. “Some gay men will treat you like shit once they find out you are straight.”

Cameron, the New Museum’s senior curator, explained his decision in different terms in an e-mail he sent to Prol in October.

“[T]his could only be THE East Village exhibition if there were five co-curators working together and two floors of the Whitney at our disposal (or better yet, the Smithsonian), plus the requisite time & budget,” Cameron wrote. “Instead, it is very much MY East Village exhibition, and once it’s on the New Museum’s walls I intend to stand there and take full responsibility for it, which includes accepting any criticism that people want to dish out. But I’m not a cultural historian, and my intention is not to reconstruct an era, but rather to look again at some specific works and artists whom I believe deserve another take.…”

Cameron and the New Museum declined to comment for this article.

Prol is not entirely excluded from the exhibit, however. A lithograph by Prol is included in the ephemera section of the exhibition, although it is not labeled and his name does not appear in the catalog.

“This is not some kind of compromise, nor a halfway position on my part, but a way of genuinely acknowledging your contribution to the East Village,” wrote Cameron in the e-mail.

But some in the artistic community note that the exhibit is called “East Village USA” and not “Dan Cameron’s East Village,” a distinction that will impact how the show is perceived.

“It’s a major New York museum,” Kostabi said. “He said this is ‘my’ East Village show and he said, ‘I’m not trying to be a cultural historian,’ but the public is going to read that show as a cultural document because it’s in a public museum and because of the title, so that’s just not true.”

The omission of Prol and Kostabi, in particular, has many in the art community concerned.

“If you’re going to leave out Kostabi and Rick Prol, I don’t know who you could put in after that,” said artist Ronnie Cutrone. “Kostabi was the most famous and Rick Prol was the most talented.”

Cutrone, who made his name in the 1970s as Andy Warhol’s assistant, sent an e-mail to Cameron on Prol’s behalf. It went unanswered.

“It’s like doing a Pop Art show and leaving out Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Cutrone said. “It was a major, major, major flaw. It was the biggest flaw you could make in curating a show.”

Other artists see Prol and Kostabi’s presence in the ephemera section and Kostabi’s brief mention in the catalog’s index as sufficient.

“I’ve been telling Rick [Prol] that he should stop complaining. He did his own show. I called it a corrective,” said Walter Robinson, editor of Artnet magazine and a featured artist in “East Village USA.” “The East Village incorporated hundreds of artists, so naturally some people are left out. Dan Cameron says very clearly that this is a personal take. There’s no scholarship here.”

Still others see Prol’s omission as an accurate curatorial decision on Cameron’s part.

“Rick Prol is a very minor artist,” said Baird Jones, author of “Mark Kostabi and the East Village Scene, 1983-1987.” “He was a minor artist compared to Buster Cleveland, who got consistent reviews in Art in America and Art News, and is not in the show.”

Although Jones deems Cameron’s decision to omit Prol purely curatorial, he has a very different assessment of Kostabi’s fate. Kostabi’s continuing exile from the New York City art scene, he says, stems from a 1989 interview with Vanity Fair. Then a darling of the New York art world, he told the magazine, “These museum curators, that are for the most part homosexual, have controlled the art world in the 80s. Now they’re all dying of AIDS, and although I think it’s sad, I know it’s for the better. Because homosexual men are not actively participating in the perpetuation of human life.”

Kostabi’s remark was followed by an uproar in the gay and AIDS activist communities, culminating with a heated demonstration outside a 1990 exhibition of Kostabi’s work at the New York Historical Society.

“East Village USA” is very much an homage to those lost to the AIDS epidemic, among them Keith Haring, Peter Hujar, Nicolas Moufarrege, Paul Thek and David Wojnarowicz. The exhibit culminates in a memorial room dedicated to the work of several of those artists.

“I’m sure Dan [Cameron] hates his guts,” said Baird of Kostabi. “Obviously Dan was aware of the comment. It was an incredible scandal.”

But Kostabi, who now lives in Italy, insists the elaborate politics that define the New York City art world are more complex than a statement he has long since retracted.

“I made a horrible statement and I apologized for it and never once repeated it,” he said. Emil Nolde, a Nazi sympathizer, who never apologized for his statements, did not lose his place among the German Expressionists for his opinions, Kostabi pointed out.

The politics of the East Village art scene, said Kostabi, are far pettier than anything having to do with 15-year-old inflammatory statements.

“I think more than that simplistic political argument was that I was not cool enough for him [Cameron] and Rick Prol wasn’t cool enough either,” he said. “The art world is like high school.”

Kostabi, by his own admission, was very much an outsider in the East Village scene, and if the reason to exclude him and Prol was cliquish by nature, it does not answer Rhonda Zwillinger’s notable absence from the New Museum’s walls. Zwillinger, once a pivotal figure in the East Village movement, represented by Gracie Mansion, owner of a quintessential East Village gallery of the same name, left New York in 1991 after a chemical injury. She now lives in northern Arizona and shows in Manhattan at the Paval Zoubok Gallery in Chelsea.

“It breaks my heart,” she said of Cameron’s decision to relegate her place to four exhibition announcements in the ephemera section and a brief mention in the catalog. None of her art appears in the exhibit.

“He’s a curator, he can curate it anyway he wants, I have no control over that,” Zwillinger said. “But he made an error in keeping me out… I definitely was an integral part in [the East Village] and I think that my work had a strength of vision and I will be remembered.”

Zwillinger was floored by some of the artists that made the cut. Ellen Berkenblit has four pieces in the Cameron show.

“I’m going to throw up,” said Zwillinger when she learned that Berkenblit made the cut. “She wasn’t a seminal person. I was a seminal person. Yes, put her in there, but leave me out? I don’t get it. She was on the fringes, not like me, who was in the trenches. Please.”

Gracie Mansion, who represented Zwillinger and many of the artists featured in the Cameron retrospective, including Judy Glantzman and Rodney Alan Greenblat — both of whom Zwillinger was chagrined to learn had been selected over her — thinks that despite Zwillinger’s absence, the show captures the spirit of the times.

“A lot people when they think of the East Village, they think of Rhonda [Zwillinger],” Mansion said. Nevertheless, “Dan [Cameron] did a really good job considering the space limitations… I couldn’t be happier with the show. I think it looks fabulous.”

Despite her frustration, Zwillinger sees her time in the East Village as a ten-year chapter in a “long and auspicious” career that will continue with or without Cameron’s acknowledgement, she said.

Kostabi, who grosses $2 million a year in art sales, agrees with Zwillinger.

“I’m a multimillionaire thanks to the East Village,” he said. “This is just one show and I think there will be several other East Village shows.”

Not all of the East Village artists have enjoyed commercial success, however, and artists like Prol may not shrug off a curatorial setback with as much grace.

“Whoever does the next show tends to look back on the previous show, so if you’re left out now, you’re left out forever,” said Timothy Greenfield Sanders, a prominent photographer from the East Village era. His series of photographs of the East Village artists, gallery owners and critics is on display at “East Village USA.”

“Is it a tempest in a teapot? Yes,” he said of the controversy. “But if you’re in the teapot, it’s important to you.”