Tom Warren

The 1980's Art Scene in New York

November 18, 2021

Introduction for the forthcoming book The 1980's Art Scene in New York featuring a treasure-trove of images from Mr. Warren's Portrait Studio and Visual Journal published by Pulpo Gallery & Hatje Cantz

GRANDMASTER FLASH (JOSEPH SADDLER), WILD STYLE PREMIER, 2021
Print 16 x 20 in. 40.6 x 50.8 cm.
Edition of 5 plus 1 AP
Copyright The Artist

Tom Warren, the omnipresent photographer with a Hasselblad F1000, arrived in New York City in March of 1979 when CBGB’s, The Mudd Club, Xenon, Palladium, and Danceteria were in full swing and after graduating from Kent State University’s School of Journalism with a Bachelor of Science degree in Photo-Illustration. It was the year Leonard Abrams founded the East Village Eye, a local paper focusing on politics, art, and gentrification that would eventually publish Tom’s photographs and was the first to publish the word ‘hip-hop.’  Blondie was at the top of the charts, and the Talking Heads along with Brian Eno produced the album, Fear of Music, with its single “Life During Wartime” that paid homage to both the Mudd Club and CBGB’s. Other musicians playing downtown during the time and favored by Tom were John and Evan Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, the American no wave band, DNA, and the Ramones who Tom first saw play back in Cleveland in 1977.  In a few short years, however, the AIDS and Crack Epidemics would be ravaging communities throughout the city while one neighborhood particularly hard-hit, the East Village, would simultaneously start reigning supreme as the epicenter of the art world. Every night, Tom recalled, “was another party, another art opening, another gallery opening.” And Tom thrived on this eclectic energy of his new home and city and placed himself front and center as observer, participant, and documentarian to this vibrant yet rapidly changing cityscape filled with the quixotic and visionary. For years, Mr. Warren took shots observing and joining the artistic milieu, kept photographs, preserved and archived—a blessing to art and cultural history. In his much-lauded 2004 exhibition East Village USA at The New Museum, curator Dan Cameron summed up this time and place perfectly:

“Imagine a village where everybody is an artist, nobody has or needs a steady job, and anyone can be the art world’s Next Big Thing. Such was the myth (and occasionally the reality) of the East Village in the mid-1980s when glamour and sleaze were nearly indistinguishable, and the boy next door was an androgynous, foot-high-peroxide-pompadour-sporting singer named John Sex.”

KIKI SMITH, 2021
Print 20 x 16 in. 50.8 x 40.6 cm.
Edition of 5 plus 1 AP
Copyright The Artist

But when Tom arrived in New York, the large lot where The New Museum now sits was vacant and the area was still referred to as Skid Row, marked by Flop Houses that served the poor, often inebriated men who paid a nominal fee to sleep and bathe. Broken windows, unfortunately, were everywhere and it’s been estimated that by the end of the 1970’s, eighty-percent of this neighborhood’s housing units were abandoned or seized by the city for non-payment of taxes. And by 1979, the city had witnessed an exodus of over one-million, tax-paying citizens who migrated for greener pastures. Many, at the time, believed New York was in irreversible decline. After all, the city was burning, literally, and with high crime, blackouts, looting, race riots, long gas lines, and financial doom and gloom, landlords simply walked away from their buildings because the income generated was less than the taxes needed to keep them. Enter, artists. The large number of vacancies allowed them to move in on the cheap. Or squat. It is why Tom, invited by a friend to build out a loft in SOHO, first arrived in the city. 

RENE RICARD WITH A DRAWING BY JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT ON HIS JEANS, 2021
Print 20 x 16 in. 50.8 x 40.6 cm.
Edition of 5 plus 1 AP
Copyright The Artist

Around this time and over the course of the following decade, a number of New York City artist-activist and community-based groups were formed. The Rivington School, ABC No Rio, Fashion Moda, and Colab (Collaborative Projects)—to name a few—focused on fostering relationships with disadvantaged neighborhoods as a means to solidarity and discourse with working people on pressing issues. How fitting, then, when Colab staged The Real Estate Show, the first exhibition of the new decade, on New Year’s Day, January 1st, 1980, in an abandoned city-owned storefront at 123 Delancey Street to critique the city’s land-use policies that kept these very buildings vacant and derelict for so long. The show was billed “preemptive and insurrectionary,” and Tom was there that day with the founder of the protopunk band Electric Eels, John D. Morton. But the artist-run show was quickly shut down by police and the building padlocked, ironically, by the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development. 

The Real Estate Show’s participants did, however, raise some hell and secured press coverage in every major NYC publication and news outlet. Even art dealer Ronald Feldman and Fluxus pioneer Joseph Beuys showed up a few days later to support the cause. The power of the community, press, and activism forged lasting and positive results. One such result being that Tom had fallen in with the crowd who organized it, Colab, particularly with the artist Alan W. Moore, a founding member also of ABC No Rio, who invited Tom to participate in the much-heralded Times Square Show later that year with the likes of John and Charlie Ahearn, Jane Dickson, Bobby G, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Jenny Holzer, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Becky Howland, Joseph Nechvatal, Tom Otterness, Kiki Smith, Judy Rifka and others. In the stairwell of a shuttered massage parlor at 201 W 41st. where the exhibition took place, two of Tom’s photos hung, snapshots of college students playing basketball, and with it the opportunity for meeting future subjects.

Another lasting affect of The Real Estate Show to both Tom’s career and the larger, art-history narrative of New York was that in 1981 Mr. Warren was again invited by Alan W. Moore to do a show at ABC No Rio.  ABC No Rio, interestingly enough, was granted the use of an empty building at 156 Rivington Street by the city as part of the compromise to the eviction incurred by some of its members collaborating in The Real Estate Show at 123 Delancey Street. This act by the city firmly cemented ABC No Rio’s presence on the Lower East Side for decades to come. It makes for a fascinating anecdote: A burnt-out neon sign in the front window at 156 Rivington had once read “Abogado Con Notario” (Lawyer With Notary Public), but the only letters that remained when the artists moved in were “Ab C No rio.”  This new community arts center was billed as "a place where you could do things that wouldn’t even cross your mind to do in a gallery.”  And it is where Tom, inspired by American photographer, Mike Disfarmer, German portrait photographer, August Sander, French flâneur and documentary photographer, Eugène Atget, Lower East Side mainstay Arthur Fellig (aka Weegee), and the German conceptual artists and photography duo, Bernd and Hilla Bechers, conceptualized the Portrait Studio as a performance show and with his, Cambo 4x5 Studio View Camera began taking photos of the Lower East Side neighbors and many of the artists who lived nearby or whom he met along the way.  On the second floor of that pivotal New Museum show, East Village USA, filled with photographs by a number of photographers who best captured the spirit of the age, Mr. Cameron states: “...Tom Warren’s unassuming manner enabled him to make portraits of hundreds of the period’s most memorable individuals.” Indeed, he did. And the best part is that his photographs are just as memorable and timely as ever. — de la Haba

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© copyright 2021 Gregory de la Haba
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