Remembering Tseng Kwong Chi

Perhaps someday someone will make a film of my book Art After Midnight and explore the New York social scene born in the shadow of CB’s by freshman art students from around the world, converging at a time when world’s collided and paradigm’s began shifting in downtown New York City.

I selected Tseng Kong Chi as a primary photographer for my 1985 book, although I included all the great photographers who documented the scene, especially Harvey Wang, who took this photo of Tseng performing with Keith Haring at Club 57. I’m pretty sure this was before Tseng assumed his Chairman Mao identity, and that Club 57 was the lab where Tseng honed some skills. Club 57 was an orgy of creativity in action.

When they finally make a great film about this scene, it won’t be about Basquiat, Haring or anyone else, but the entire community because everyone who attended these ceremonies made a contribution. Like most movements, 50 stars were involved, but there were 500 in the audience, and the audience is just as important as the stars when it comes to birthing new movements because they add the necessary psychic energy to lift the movement higher. And Tseng was certainly one of those 50, so its wonderful the Grey Art Gallery has recognized him with a long overdue major exhibition.

Without Tseng, where would Borat be? If only I had a video camera back then and the foresight to follow Tseng around like he followed Keith—only Keith was chalking subway panels while Tseng was crashing the biggest old-money events in town with a self-created VIP name-tag and a non-speaking Mao persona. He even got photos with Henry Kissinger and Henry thought he was some visiting dignitary from China and not a performance artist. But this was performance art on a whole new scale.

Maybe you know this movement took massive energy from the collision of hip hop and punk? I like to think of Tseng’s work as 3D graffiti because it was all about getting up. When a writer starts, the first mission is to formulate a word, tag, nickname, message to be promoted. The Mao character was Tseng’s tag in a way and I think he remained mute because Tseng was shy and it took a lot of confidence for him to launch into these epic social scenes and remain in character.

The Grey Art exhibit includes an enormous print of a photo Tseng shot for the back cover of the book, inspired by a continuing series Tseng was working on, in which he was photographing Keith, Kenny, Bruno, Carmel, Ann, John, Min and a few others. He had a series of group shots taken just before some big ceremony or night on the town. I asked him to do the same thing for the back cover, only I wanted to include some other major characters in the book, like Patti Astor, Steve Maas, Animal X, Joey Arias, David McDermott and Peter McGough. I probably talked it over and we decided it should be kept down to a dozen to be manageable. And at the last second, Kenny Scharf dropped out, and although Jean Michel was invited of course, I didn’t realize including Jean could only be guaranteed if we’d taken the photograph at his place on Great Jones. There may be people left out of this photo still harboring faint grudges today, and I wish we’d just invited all 50 stars and made it like Sergeant Pepper’s. Next time I’ll know better.

As the objective reporter, I didn’t want to insert myself into the photo, so I didn’t even attend the shoot. In hindsight, another mistake. But Tseng did call me as soon as John Sex walked in the door. “He doesn’t have his hair up,” said Tseng, massively disappointed. I think we’d both envisioned John in the center with his giant pompadour. “Don’t worry,” I said. Later when I saw the photo, I noted Joey had come prepared to upstage John’s hairstyle with something more epic than a giant blonde pomp—black devil horns.

Sometimes magic starts itself

Before I arrived at High Times, I’d spent over a year working on a book about the East Village art scene, examining the art clubs. Art After Midnight goes for around $100 today, although you can buy an updated digital version on smashwords with new illos and photos for under $5. There was a lot of hybridization going on in the 1980s, with punk meeting hip hop and both invading the art world from different fronts. Both styles emanated out of the 1960s counterculture and both found the mainstream too soft.

So I was in a Club 57 frame of mind, where camp becomes a wilderness of mirrors, when I arrived at High Times and just to pass the time, started a column called My Amerika by Ed Hassle, a tribute to Ed Anger of the Weekly World News. I always thought the supermarket tabloids were run as propaganda tools by the CIA, but Anger was an obvious comedy act who made fun of right wing views by taking them to their illogical conclusions.

Bill Kelly, my favorite deejay used to read from his column on his Sunday show. Funny thing, Bill was a big reason I diverted into forming the Soul Assassins. I was hanging out with the first generation of hip hop and inspired by their do-it-yourself energy. I could have formed a rap band I guess, or just become a hip hop journalist for the rest of my life and made a fortune like Nelson George. Instead I veered into garage rock? Maybe because I’d been kicked out of my first garage band for doing LSD in 1967 and never got to finish perfecting my garage rock set. Then I met Brian Spaeth and he’d been kicked out of the Fleshtones, the reigning garage kings of NYC. So I guess we both had something to prove.

Funny thing, after Ed Hassle called for the formation of a new movement called The Freedom Fighters, a hemp movement that would bring back the big pot rallies from the late 1960s (most of these events had died out) it began as a joke really, but when the issue came out, the concept took off like wild-fire, and I realized I had a tiger by the tale. Before long, I was touring around the country, playing with my band in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans, and giving speeches about legalization with Chef RA and Jack Herer at every stop. And afterwards, we’d head back to the campground and eat Ra’s Rasta Pasta, sip Budweiser and pass spliffs until late into the night while the Assassinettes danced around the fire with a full moon beaming down. See, I was trained in “Happenings” by the likes of Jasper Grootveld, Julian Beck, John Cage, and Ken Kesey, so I had a sense of the magic involved in changing people’s perceptions on a massive scale, as well as the techniques for manifesting that sort of magic.

Funny how the natural elements always seemed to be working against us, not to mention all those undercover cop cars that dogged us everywhere. The first time we left New York in our magic bus, we got stranded by a freak snow storm high in the Pennsylvania mountains. Much later, returning from the first Freedom Fighter National Convention, we got lost in a monsoon and a screaming fight broke out about which way to go. When the bus finally got back to our motel, I kissed the ground. But we lost Rodger, who had all the weed, as he couldn’t take the smell of hard liquor on some of us and disappeared never to trust us fully again. And then the party turned into a binge drinking bash with no weed in which our energy unraveled and we lost harmonization. We’d broken up and lost our Assassinettes, not to mention Brian, Bob and Rick. And the vibe just wasn’t the same without them.

Fun Gallery…the true story by Patti Astor

I was hoping to run into some old friends I haven’t seen in a while, like Fred, Futura and Zephyr, but none of them made it to Patti Astor’s book signing. The four of us belong to a very special group, you see, one that also includes Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. We all had shows at the Fun Gallery, although mine was the only photographic exhibit ever held at that gallery. (Only one photograph sold, btw, an Andre Grossmann blow-up of an early breakdance competition, which was purchased by Gary Pini for around $150. Last time I saw it, it was hanging over a fireplace in his townhouse in Brooklyn, although I haven’t been there in over a decade.)

Patti was a true Queen of the East Village during its glory days. The scene back then was divided between the older, more sophisticated Mudd Club crowd and the retro Club 57 crew, both of which were pursuing much different esthetics, although both worlds got suddenly pulled together when hip hop arrived. Patti and Jean-Michel were part of the core of Mudd Club, while Keith, Kenny, John Sex and Ann Magnuson were the emerging Club 57 stars. The Mudd Club was mostly on heroin at the time, while Club 57 much preferred mushrooms. Later cocaine took over everywhere.

Patti’s drug of preference, however, was probably Veuve Clicqout. At least that’s what usually emerged when a major ceremony of her’s was about to go down. Patti was the greatest master of ceremonies in New York at the time, which is why all these artists wanted desperately to show in her gallery.

Her book is a masterpiece of counterculture literature, and a way better guide to the era than what has been published so far (with the possible exception of my book Art After Midnight). I read it in one sitting and it really took me back to the period. Despite the emergence of AIDS right in our midst, the infusion of hip hop into the downtown scene was monumental. Fred Brathwaite was really the first person to catch onto the potentials of merging downtown with the South Bronx. He met Patti at a cocktail party and the rest is history. In the book, she refers to him as the “chairman of the board.” I had to read the book to discover they were also lovers for a brief time. One of my favorite scenes in the book happens after Patti breaks up with her husband Steven Kramer and moves quickly from Fred to Futura to Jean-Michel. Walking home late at night, Fred looks over at Keily Jenkins and snarls “You’ll probably be next.” “Really?!” says Keily. Not only was Keily next, but he was the one who actually stuck. Of course, Patti wasn’t there to see that conversation. She heard about it later from Keily, one of the many luminaries from that time period who died too young to comb his grey hair.

Charlie Ahearn, Michael Holman and me really stood out as the survivors as we all had a hand along with Patti in bringing hip hop to the rest of the world. I wish I’d taken a photo of the three of us, as our paths may not cross again for another 10 years.

Art After Midnight reviews

“…drugs, sex and chicanery… with verve, charm and sophistication…”

East Village Eye, August 1986: This is the first full-scale treatment of the overlapping club, art and performance scenes which have wrought tremendous changes in New York’s art world. Since it began in the late ’70s, a generation of artists sidestepped the frozen, hierarchical world of Soho galleries and began doing their work in nightclubs. Art After Midnight tells their story with verve, charm and sophistication. The book is not art history, not esthetics. It is a social history, a chronicle of artists’ lives, and of the broader milieu through which they moved. As one who hung out through most of this, I can testify that Steven Hager got it right. Not much is left out, and what I didn’t witness sounds like I pictured it. Art After Midnight reads like an expose—drugs, sex, artworld maneuvering and chicanery. Hager rips aside the sanctimonious veil that covers most writing on art to show us the real movers of the new scene as real people. (I know I’ll never read in Artforum how Zurich art dealer Bruno Bischofberger “rolls into” a Fun Gallery opening with “a babe on each arm.”…the Dionysus of the fun art Blitzkrieg was Kenny Scharf, insisting on his right to remain in the nursery, with its intoxicating funny-faces and delirious horrors….ten years from now, how will we feel about the lions of today?…Hager’s book provides a vibrant panorama of the beachhead.—Alan Moore

“…riotously illustrated…lively narration…”

Booklist September, 1986: Having already given its South Bronx sibling the once-over in Hip Hop, Hager turns to the East Village art scene that flourished simultaneously (c. 1975-85). His riotously illustrated chronicle tells how, inspired by such 1960s avant-gardists as Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground rock band and by the gross satirical filmmaker, John Waters, the young artists created successive waves of neo-dada, first in punk music, then in performance art, before the burgeoning of new galleries in the East Village brought most of them back to painting,  where they had generally all begun. The scene finally fell apart when, like avant-gardists before them, the best talents in the movement became famous and started to sell to high-dollar collectors. In the meantime, an immense amount of fun was had, fun that Hager conveys through a lively narration sparked by commentary of most of the scene’s principle artists, performers, and musicians.—RO

“…as artless as the scene itself…”

ELLE, June 1986: Long on hindsight, short on insight, Steven Hager’s book on the rise of the East Village art scene comes off as artless as the scene itself. Yes, you may learn how the Mudd Club got its name (I’ve already forgotten) and what CBGB & OMFUG stands for (who cares?), that Keith Haring went to Grateful Dead concerts because “he wanted to be a hippie,” or that David Byrne was described as “a cross between Ralph Nader, Lou Reed and Tony Perkins” in an early press release, and you’ll hear all about Kenny Scharf’s Jetsons fixation, but you won’t get much meaningful evaluation of the often questionable art to emerge from one of the more fringe movements of this century. —Peter Occhiogrosso

“…a Big Chill for the punk generation…”

The City Paper, July 4, 1986: Take the in-crowd focus of Interview, add gushy innocence of a teen music fanzine and a dash of the I-know-what’s-important pose of Artforum, and you’ll approximate the tone of Art After Midnight, a coffee-table postmortem on the East Village punk scene, RIP (roughly) 1977-1982. The scene itself comes across as fun, ingeneous, wild and wacky, with that mix of profundity and utter frivolity we associate with the hijinks of any art student crowd anywhere anytime. Hager’s I-was-there slant, meanwhile, is a kind of heavy nostalgia editorializing that makes the book a Big Chill for the punk generation. Every generation is nostalgic for and overly apologetic about its wild and wacky youth. The East Village scene was clearly a lot of fun for Hager, and he does a good job of making it sound like fun in this book.—John Strausbaugh

“…art that the serious have to take seriously…”

Boston Phoenix October 8, 1986: They were young—the first generation weaned on Let’s Make a Deal—and they had no standards whatsoever. They were American: they ruled the world. And they just wanted to have fun. They succeeded, some, like Haring, Basquiat and Byrne, beyond their wildest imaginations, and in the process they made some art that the serious have to take seriously. This book may not diagnose the disease very well, but it sure as hell is a fun display of the symptoms. —David Bonetti

‘”…detailed descriptions of clothing and hairstyles…”

City Arts  January 18, 1987: Aptly, author Steven Hager chose the style of a gossip columnist to relate the history of this neighborhood, which has seen the birth of punk rock music, performance art, and the newest school of visual art, Neo Expressionism. Hager talks about the lives, relationships and social gatherings of East Village art and music celebrities, including fairly detailed descriptions of their clothing and hairstyles. For those who believe in the purity of artists and their rejection of crass commercialism, this book will be an eye-opener. Hager’s description of the new art superstars, most of whom achieved substantial commercial success while still in their 20s, illustrates the overwelming influence of television, blockbuster Hollywood films and popular music on these artists. —Patty Somlo

“…outrageous energy….”

Publishers’ Weekly May 30, 1986 The outrageous energy of the participants and their subsequent notoreity will carry the reader through this uncritical, discursive pop history of what [St. Martins’] calls the “Global East Village.” He begins with CBGB’s and its development as the premier club for punk rock and the nihilistic youth culture of its audience. The author then covers various groupings that were make to make Manhattan’s East Village and neoexpressionism buzzwords of the ’80s. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring receive extensive coverage, as well as performance artists like Ann Magnuson and “personalities” such as Patti Astor. The book culminates with the explosion of galleries in the East Village and its impact on the New York art market-place. Hager’s treatment is unremarkable but, as always, the East Village provides its own momentum.