Greater New York?
Originally envisioned as a survey show of emerging artists, the fourth instalment of “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1 changes tract and raises the average artist age to a getting-on-a-bit 48. Through the more mature positions the difference between old New York and the “Post-Bloomburg iteration we’ve inherited” becomes startlingly clear. Musing on the inclusion of videos of drag performers by Nelson Sullivan and the cruising photographs of Alvin Baltrop, our writer gets nostalgic for the salad days of NYC.
Much of old New York has been lost: piers, bodegas, neighborhoods, nightclubs, artists, character. Some of what remains is currently on display at MoMA Ps1's signature, somewhat melancholic quinquennial, "Greater New York", which considers the legacy of the salad days of downtown NYC. In one room on the first floor of the museum, just past James Nares' Pendulum (1973) and Loretta Fahrenholz's ethereal, brilliant Ditch Plains (2013), three films by Nelson Sullivan tease out the implications of this legacy, especially a fealty to fashion and nightlife. Under-known as an artist, Sullivan, who died in 1989 of a heart attack at the age of 41, left behind a curious, diaristic body of work of roughly 2,000 hours of footage of 80s New York, including hours of tape of young Lady Bunny and RuPaul, much of which is available on YouTube.
Choppy, handheld, and grainy, Sullivan’s films are a ramshackle, often confusing, portrait of whomever—and wherever—he happened to be around that day, though he was mostly attentive to the rotating clans of art and nightlife that dominated the New York club scene at the time. In one of his films presented at Ps1, Lady Bunny—Sullivan’s roommate at the time—runs about town as the artist follows her, barking orders about where she should go and who she should talk to. It’s a funny, off-kilter revision of the classic chase films of proto-Hollywood, and likewise follows the story-less logic of some of that genre’s earliest examples by forgoing plot in order to focus exclusively on action and movement cleaved from context (like most drag performances, actually).
Sullivan and Lady Bunny freewheel through the city, which scarcely resembles its post-Bloomberg iteration that we’ve inherited,
with Lady Bunny occasionally bursting into screaming fits as she runs into oncoming traffic or around a tight corner.
Sullivan’s old New York and its differences from the current one seems to be at least part of the point of his inclusion: elsewhere, Charles Atlas’ recent film of Lady Bunny, twenty-five or so years older, occupies a room to itself and returns, by way of a long monologue told to an unmoving camera, to precisely these changes. In it, Lady Bunny kvetches about the state of the city and the country, the destitute poor, and the collapsing environment. She is unhappy, as most people are, but still performing—and, at least, there’s that, though it is a conviction complicated by layers of drag irony and shade. But the New York she knew has become history, one often tinged with nostalgia and a helpless sense that we can never be brought back to those storied times.
I can’t watch Sullivan’s films without thinking of his many video portraits of young RuPaul, who was working nightclubs at the time and living in the tower of the Jane Hotel on the West Side Highway. It’s an odd choice to have left him out, given his importance to Sullivan’s work—and to his own long, dicey negotiation of the New York underground and relative mainstream appeal. In Sullivan’s portraits of RuPaul, the young drag queen wanders into bodegas, a curiously lit Mary Boone, various dressing rooms in the backs of nightclubs, the streets of downtown, and his apartment in the then-crummy Jane Hotel. (In one scene in the hotel lobby, RuPaul complains that he used his last quarter to call Sullivan, who had just turned up unexpectedly.) Long before he developed his highly rehearsed television personality, younger Ru is witty and insecure, confessing drunkenly in one film that he hates that he relies on the generosity of ogling men for money. In another video Ru, Sullivan and some of their friends visit a gallery and are greeted by homophobes on the street, one of which calls RuPaul “a disgrace to the human race”. He doesn’t respond; rather, he looks bored and sad, one of the few times in the videos in which he has nothing to say. Later, they all drive around town before heading up to Times Square to see a Bruce Nauman sculpture installed in the center median. Everyone laughs as they joyride up, but RuPaul remains quiet as he stares at television monitors of Times Square. They never find the sculpture.
RuPaul’s Jane was (and still is) a short walk from the now gone piers, the legendary cruising grounds of New York’s gay scene, images of which were beautifully captured by Alvin Baltrop and included in a room adjacent to Sullivan’s films. In the black and white photographs, most of which were shot at comfortable distance (Baltrop wrote in an unfinished preface to a book of his photographs that he feared the sex that took place there, and so liked to photograph it from a comfortable remove), men occupy a world apart from the rest of the city: destroyed, empty, on the verge of falling into the Hudson, the piers where they cruise obtain an idyllic silence. The men stare at one another and pose among the collapsed wooden beams and floors, some naked, some practicing S/M and bondage play. They are a reminder that the city’s architecture once formed an integral part of gay sexuality in its provisional, secretive spaces, from piers to the baths, the porn theaters of Times Square to all night discos, and in many ways define a post-Stonewall gay male identity.
The “romantic grandeur” of the piers, to borrow a phrase from Douglas Crimp, one of the four curators of the exhibition, has been lost, replaced by a digitized cityscape tethered to the abstract geography of location-based hook-up apps and buoyed by a few clubs here and there, most of which struggle—like the artists who attend the parties—to hold on. But not all is lost, as "Greater New York" attests. Many of the younger artists, including Raul de Nieves, Park McArthur, Will Rawls, have taken up the documentary, site-specific, hectic, conceptual, and interrogative work that began with many of the older artists included in the show like Atlas, Sullivan, and Baltrop, and as such lend a speculative bent to the show’s title, one that might herald a greater New York than the one we have at present.
Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (Nightboat 2014). He co-edits Wonder and lives in New York. He recently read his poetry for the event "It's Not What Happen's, It's How You Handle It" in conjunction with "Greater New York".