A 20th-anniversary retrospective exhibit pays homage to a lost raw era–and the girls who made it even rawer.
What happened to New York City? From the seventies until the turn of the 21st century, Manhattan was corroded with grit. Danger lurked imminently at almost every concrete corner. Subway cars were coated in layers of graffiti and always reeked of urine. Now it’s only the platforms that smell like human pee, and it’s only once in awhile when you’ll catch a whiff. The Meatpacking District, scrubbed clean of cow blood and pig guts, chatty tranny hookers and hole-in-the-wall S&M joints, now wears gleaming Intermix and Scoop storefronts, along with the new-ish Whitney Museum. The lone remnants of the lurid temptations that once seasoned Times Square, now a sparkly polished outdoor mall, are strip clubs like FlashDancers and Lace. Big deal.
The sole vestige of drug-addled, old-school filth seems to be Tompkins Square Park and its framing blocks, also known as Alphabet City. It’s still pretty shitty over there. Just a couple weeks ago, I was walking past the Odessa diner when a delightful street urchin of a man, hunched with a giant backpack strapped to him, barreled down the street announcing, “I have AIDS. I have AIDS all over my face!” Girls in going-out tops and body-conscious dresses gripped their boyfriends and scurried out of his way. Genius! I thought. That’s an effective way to get people to move.
I wasn’t around for the piss- and whiskey-soaked days of the Mudd Club, for example, when a twenty-something named Madonna, dating Jean-Michel Basquiat, was notorious for taking over the dance floor. Or of CBGB’s, when David Byrne, Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, and Patti Smith took turns contorting their bodies and voices on the bar’s shrimpy stage. But I do remember CBGB’s before it became a John Varvatos boutique-cum-homage to itself, and when the Bowery was more seedy than shiny.
To quote an LCD Soundsystem song, “New York, you’re safer and you’re wasting my time/Our records all show you were filthy but fine.” Like their lead singer and native New Yorker, James Murphy, anyone who has been here for longer than 20 years, and who is older than 20, has ample nostalgia for the old scum. Cleanliness translates to lack of character, a sense of safety to a dearth of exuberance. (Even LCD Soundsystem has been officially defunct since 2011.) Blame the “mild billionaire mayor” who ruled from 2001 to 2014, as well as his less savory predecessor, who was even more adverse to “urban decay.”
Like any entity with lifeblood coursing through its veins, New York’s only constant is change. To ask why is to question its ebb and flow, and that is to disregard the reality of a city heaving with personality. It’s a living organism, constantly shedding its cells. So maybe New York has mutated into a place that doesn’t heave with quite as much gusto, maybe it’s been reduced to “the twist without the shout.” Or maybe it’s our own perspective that has changed more than anything else.
Enter Richard Kern, who was born in 1954 in North Carolina. He launched his photocopied and stapled, East Village-based zine, originally titled “The Heroin Addict,” in 1979. Six years later, he directed a music video for Sonic Youth (for the song “Death Valley ‘69”), before evolving into a filmmaker, photographer, and self-described “portraitist.” When he first began showing his images, at the onset of the eighties, they were deemed erotic, provocative, and shocking. They maintained their ability to simultaneously arouse and unnerve well into the mid-nineties. That’s not to say they don’t have that power now. But to put it simply, things have changed. We’re kind of numb to porn, and images that conjure it, thanks, in part, to the advent of the Internet and the convenience that comes with it.
In honor of Taschen’s 20th-anniversary re-release of Kern’s book New York Girls, the Marlborough Gallery has unveiled two joint Richard Kern exhibits: “New York Girls Revisited,” at the Marlborough Broome Street, along with sister exhibit, “Viewing Room: Richard Kern,” featuring photos from 1979-1990 at the Marlborough Chelsea, both on view through December 23rd. Kern’s New York Girls photographs, most of which were appropriately shot in his East Village walk-up, accompanied by a single Super 8, may not have the shock value they once did, but they’ve definitely held up over time – and they might catalyze us to reexamine the sex-oriented imagery we consume on a regular basis today.
Fetish gear, in the form of black gloves, cuffs, and collars; cigarettes in dire need of a tap on the ashtray; rope in various states of tautness; dropped blue jeans and unmanicured hands hinting at masturbation; toilet seats, toilet paper rolls, and fallen panties: Kern may not be the first photographer to have featured such elements, but he was one of the first to bring them to the forefront. More importantly, tied up or naked as Kern’s “girls” may be, he uses their sexuality to reveal who they are at their cores, not to objectify them. Like New York City itself, these girls don’t seem quite as gritty as they did “back then,” but their mystique hasn’t dissipated.
New York Girls, 20th Anniversary Edition is currently available for pre-order. And if you’re into Richard Kern and pictures of naked women smoking weed, then pick up Contact High. This book holds a special place for Kern who’s said of his adolescence, “Back then, when I was around a naked girl, weed was either about to be smoked or had been smoked.”