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.

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.

Remembering the Fun Gallery

Patti Astor has an incredible sense of ceremony. She was way cooler than me, but our trajectories weren’t that far off: Patti emanated out of Cincinnati and the SDS, and me out of the anti-war movement in central Illinois. We were both into experimental theater and film, although she became an underground star, while I had to go into journalism to survive. Eventually Patti’s career as an actress was eclipsed by her role as a master of ceremonies.

In fact, her ceremonies were peerless at the time. Patti knew how to surf the zeitgeist and could manufacture “juice,” which is what the emerging hip hop kids called telepathic energy and star power.

The East Village art scene was pretty complex and dynamic, but I seem to remember a time when Patti was dating Jean Michel and I guess everyone considered them the King and Queen at that point. Patti had divorced Steven Kramer, who was another incredible artistic force at the time in his own right. It takes a tribe to make real culture happen. And when that tribe forms, these magical creatures appear to channel the energies of the group, creatures like Jean Michel, Fred, Patti.

I remember sitting in back of the Fun Gallery with Fred and talking about Congo Square. Fred knew the real history of the counterculture. It started in the one place where slaves gathered on Sundays in New Orleans, a site that quickly spawned the most fascinating cultural eruption in North America. The French slaves from Haiti had merged with the local Native Americans to create multicultural forms of song, fashion, dance and gesture based on spontaneous improvisation and freedom of expression. Soon people from all over North America were traveling to New Orleans just to visit Congo Square on a Sunday and watch the incredible ceremonies that unfolded every weekend.

What those visitors found were dance circles. Sometimes many would form, but at other times, when something really immense was going down, there would be only one circle and one or two dancers in the center. Some of these dances were considered wildly erotic in their day and I’m pretty sure the drum section was probably the best in North America at the time. Many of the dancers wore shells and bells that added a musical element to their performances.

Congo Square is the birthplace of blues, jazz and rock’n’roll. And the thing that always struck me was how close those Kool Herc parties in the mid-1970s were to the vibe and spirit of Congo Square. In one case you had these slaves who only had one day off, and in the other you had these teens in the South Bronx, a place recently branded as the worst slum in America. And part of the baptism of this oppression includes the birth of new styles of song, dance, fashion and gesture? And the fact Jean-Michel was Haitian just seemed to fit right in.

At the height of the East Village scene, Patti was constantly throwing these soirees, and you never knew who was going to be attending, just that the mix would be wild and fantastic. Often the point of these events was to sell some art on the spot to save the Fun Gallery, but real collectors were strangely somewhat short in supply at the time, although I’m sure many regret that absence now. I remember being at one of these events, when I was single, and I suddenly found myself in nose-to-nose direct eye contact with the most amazing dark-haired goddess. And believe me, I’ve met many amazing, totally amazing goddesses and usually I can command some sort of instant rapport, or even a semblance of normal behavior, but, in fact, in this case I was just a deer in the headlights, speechless. Meanwhile, she stood there staring me back, not saying a word, but certainly not showing intimidation, quite the opposite, in fact, this girl radiated tons of self confidence.

I remember thinking at the time, I guess she knows I’m the famous Steve Hager who wrote Beat Street and has the first book on Hip Hop ready to come out any day now. But the next day, I was talking to Patti and she asked me if I’d met Phoebe. I was like, Phoebe? Yeah, Phoebe Cates.

That’s when I realized the incredible goddess I essential blew off by not being able to speak a single word, was an actual emerging movie star. And the funny thing is, I also stupidly blew off the blonde goddess Madonna at the Fun House (but that’s another faux pas, and one already covered on a different blog).

I began plotting my next move and spending a lot of time thinking about Phoebe Cates, which wasn’t hard since she had a movie being covered daily on the newly created Entertainment Tonight (a show I embraced at first but have come to hate for creating the template that destroyed the media). Of course, I returned every afternoon to the Fun Gallery, but that was nothing new, as checking in with Patti and Bill had been part of my daily orbit for weeks. And then D-Day arrived. I walked into the Fun Gallery and Phoebe and a girl friend were lounging in bean bags looking at some Fab Five paintings that Bill had set up for them.

But for some reason I veered over to the desk and found myself on the phone talking to Kenny Scharf. I’d just come from the office of Vanity Fair and been given an assignment to write about a different gallery in the East Village, as the editor didn’t want to give the Fun any juice even though he knew that was my personal headquarters. I didn’t tell Kenny about these politics, I just said, “I got a gig with Vanity Fair,” hoping I said it loud enough for Phoebe to hear.

I don’t remember much on the rest of the moment, just that I never tried to introduce myself (and I think Bill offered to do it for me) and probably just slunk out of there eventually and then wandered around in a mindless daze of indecision. I thought I’d see Phoebe around again, but in fact never did. A few years later, she would marry Kevin Kline and move into Hollywood royalty. Years later, I discovered Kenny had told a bunch of people that I’d been hired as an editor at Vanity Fair and was embarrassed after a bunch of them told him that wasn’t true. In fact, I never “worked at” that snooty magazine and that one little gallery review probably comprised my entire output in their pages. But that was okay, because I’d soon take over High Times.

Portraits from the Artist as a Young Teen

Actually, I was supposed to an artist. That was decided when I was in the third grade in Oxford, England, when I briefly attended St. Philips & St. James, my first and only foray into the Catholic side of life.

I’d painted a dramatic portrait of a Zulu warrior that filled a large piece of construction paper. Unfortunately, the portrait fell to pieces a few years back, but I do retain most of my output from my formative high school years. After a huge confrontation (and a few runaway sessions), I negotiated a move down into my parent’s basement, where I swiftly built an art studio/recording studio/psychedelic playpen where I produced a huge amount of art and performance. The best audio session from this period is lost, sadly, but it was an improv “freak-out” with loads of free association, including a chorus that went something like, “My father is crazy, my mother is too.” I played that tape over and over. It drove my parents crazy. My mom called the basement a “den of Iniquity,” so I wrote that on the doorway and made a logo in the current poster style (above).

Ink and watercolor on fragments of construction paper became my dominant medium. After I met the novelist Paul Tyner, I invited him over to Carole’s, where I’d taken up camp in a spare bedroom while her mother was away. I showed him this watercolor and he offered me a lot of money to buy it on the spot, but I refused to sell. At the time, the thought of parting with any of my creations was just not even considered.

The walls in the basement were all painted with psychedelic faces in battleship grey, a gallon of which I discovered down there. When I look at some of watercolors today, though, they have an almost Jean-Michel color scheme, although I don’t mean to suggest I’ve got anything approaching his style or iconography. When I went to college, I signed up for Painting 101, where it was swiftly discovered I was color blind. The class consisted solely of still-lifes and I was miserable at it. Thus I abandoned my career in art and began concentrating my efforts on theater and journalism.

But one of my next major projects will be to update all my eBooks on Smashwords with color photos and illustrations and whatever else I can raid from my archives. Right now all the books have black and white covers, mostly photos of me around the time I wrote the material. As I update the books, I’ll be making new covers and also exploiting some of my own art work from the period.

The Andy Warhol influence is evident in this marker drawing. It should be noted that I never drank Pepsi, and would rather go dry than drink any cola but the old, original sugar Coke in a glass bottle.

Let me know if you see any images you really like, or if you want to see more of these. Some are quite brutal, others have obvious spiritual implications, a bye-product of all the experiments with mind-altering substances, no doubt. Duality and dynamics seem to play a role in my of the work at the time, most of which just poured out with no planning whatsoever.

I was thinking maybe someone would be interested in hosting a show so people could appreciate this work in person. (Not that I would sell anything!, unless it was serious money, of course.) Since I wrote the first newspaper article on Mary Boone, I couldn’t help but notice she has a facebook page and some of my friends are friends with her, so I sent a request and was swiftly blocked, unfortunately. I think I really pissed her of at the Brooklyn Academy of Music many years ago, when she asked me what I was up to and I said I was writing about the new Mary Boone, Patti Astor. Another sterling moment in tactlessness.