Lots of people ask me about the spirals I keep drawing all the time. You notice I put a spiral on the center candle. Where did this fascination with spirals start anyway?
Well, truth be told, it started with Kenny Scharf. I went to interview Kenny around 1981 and he showed me a piece of paper about spirituality, religion and the use of icons (which I now call sigils) that he’d recently written while coming down from mushrooms. I was blown away by the insights Kenny expressed in that essay and keep in mind, Kenny was only 23-years-old at the time, just out of college.
I’m looking for the original xerox Kenny gave me of those ideas on art and spirituality. Can’t seem to find it in this immense archive I’ve collected over the last 45 years, but I did locate a copy of the same material that was printed in a 1983 brochure for a solo show at the Tony Shafrazi gallery that may have been Kenny’s breakout moment (see left).
The essay concluded with the line: “Hydrogen God is the creator: sun, planets, earth, man. The sun being hydrogen, fusing to helium as an after product. Man plays God by using atoms, destroying himself in the process: nuclear catastrophe. Jetsonism is Nirvana.”
The one thing in this essay that really stuck with me however, was how a spiral could take you to a higher level. Kenny had stumbled onto this magic after he’d painted one on his ceiling and began staring into it while high on mushrooms. It actually helped him take his art to a higher level and I don’t think he’d deny this.
I grew up worshiping the Merry Pranksters, who created a ton of magic in the 1960s. When they painted their bus Furthur, they made it magic in the process. Then they began painting themselves and everything around them, transforming their world. I don’t think Kenny knew anything about the Pranksters, his magic bus icon probably came from the Partridge Family. But Kenny instinctively understood the magic of customizing everyday objects, ritualizing them in the process. At the time, Kenny had recently customized a vacuum cleaner and was taking it for walks around the neighborhood like it was a pet dog, all part of the magic world he was manifesting.
Today, the specter of nuclear annihilation has diminished considerably, but the threat of environmental and/or social collapse still hangs around, although I refuse to get involved with apocalyptic thinking. Fear is the basis for all mind control.
Between 1980 and 1981, a lot of emerging artists knew the Zeitgeist was changing and were experimenting with new media hoping to catch whatever wave might come along. For a year or two, Xerox art became the rage for many. In fact, Jean Michel Basquiat was doing it before he started painting on canvas, and the form may have even helped him segue from writing cryptic poems in the street to inventing his own image vocabulary based on opening up his inner child. Tom Forcade, the founder of High Times, by the way, was an influence on Jean’s teen years because Forcade was the most legendary character living downtown in the 1970s. Jean dumped a box of shaving cream on his high school principal, something that might have been inspired by Tom throwing a pie inside Congress during an investigation on pornography a few years earlier. One of Jean’s biggest boosters at the time (Glenn O’Brien) was momentarily Editor of High Times, and wrote the first major article on the new writers like Jean and Fab Five, although no one thinks of Jean as a writer today as he quickly backed away from that scene.
Of all these Xerox artists, Keith Haring was one of the most political, using Burrough’s cut-up technique to rearrange headlines from the rabidly right-wing New York Post to convey shocking messages (left). Haring was also very prolific. Anytime he did something, Keith usually went all-in, and his short-lived Xerox phase was no exception. Kenny Scharf might have been living with Keith at the time, although maybe they were just in school together but he also joined in with his own Xerox art.
Vapo Jet is the title of this piece, and it has to be one of the most phallic of all Kenny’s early work. The Fifties mom wearing Jetson-style sunglasses quickly became a recurring archetype in Kenny’s personal iconography. I wonder sometimes if my Xerox art collection is worth anything? None of the pieces are signed and it’s pretty easy to make forgeries, although I’ve never tried.
Keith eventually switched from cutting up Post headlines to inventing his own personal iconography, and that switch took place during the short-lived Xerox art movement. By New Year’s Eve 1980, Keith’s new vocabulary was fully formed (left). Meanwhile, Kenny went to soak up the vibes at Stonehenge that spring and made a color Xerox that shows him with Samantha and Bruno.
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.
I sensed there was something important Kenny wanted to tell me. After all, that’s what Min, his assistant, told me when she let me in. But it’s taking Kenny an unusually long time to get around to the subject at hand.
Finally, he pulls out a proof of my Art After Midnight cover that I’d delivered the previous day and waves his hands around, searching for words to express his feelings.
“Don’t you think a different painting would work better?” he gently says finally.
Art After Midnight is primarily about Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, but it’s clearly centered on Scharf, and I’d picked his painting, “When World’s Collide,” as the Guernica of the East Village art movement, which is why I wanted it on the cover. Flick Ford had sized the painting to its maximum for the page, but that still left a huge blank space, which Flick had filled with his own art piece, creating an illustration in place of a typeface and customizing it with his own esthetic. I thought the two pieces worked together, but I suddenly wondered if the lettering wasn’t overwhelming the painting a bit, which is obviously what was bothering Kenny. But when I called the printer, I discovered it was too late to change, which spared me any further aggravation or having to confront Flick. Fortunately, this faux pax didn’t cost my relationship with Kenny, but I sometimes wonder if he cringes whenever he sees it.
You see, The Merry Pranksters had been my primary role models from the age of 15 (1966), and it was from them I first learned about magic. After an explosive blow-up with my family (detailed in my just-released ebook, The Steam Tunnels), I moved into the empty basement of our home. Very quickly, I painted the white walls with a bucket of battleship grey I’d found, painting huge, swirling faces with the ease of a zen master, even though I’d never done anything like that before (or since). All these ghostly blobs were positive, with happy faces, except one, which unexpectedly turned out very scary-looking.That face was so scary I had to avoid it when I was tripping. I had one step in the darkside at the time, still seeking my eventual path in life. But the Pranksters had redirected me solidly on the path of the Fun Vibe. I hung blankets and bedspreads to divide the room into three sections, and built my art and music studio in the largest one. I began studying the bass guitar in earnest so I could join a garage band, my principle ambition since my friend John Hayes said I could join The Knight Riders if I learned bass, even though Donnie Perino, their current bass player, was probably the best musician in central Illinois.
Many years later, I was passing through town and discovered my parent’s were in the process of covering up my basement murals with sheet-rock. Most of the room was already done, but I did manage to go down with my friend Maarten and get a photo of the spooky face before it was covered up. For some reason, I felt it important to document. Imagine my surprise, when I found myself in New York, 15 years later, confronted by this young Kenny Scharf, who had just usurped the entire Prankster movie by taking it to another level. It was like having my whole life’s journey vindicated in some strange way.
By customizing your existence you create a magically-charged environment. The altar plays an obvious focal point in many ceremonies, and helps focus and center whatever vibration you’re channeling, but the Pranksters and Kenny learned that when you crawl inside your altar, you can spiritually charge everything around you, and open portals to other dimensions if you’re lucky. And when this happens, a tremendous burst of creative energy is released. That is magic. Of course, you can scout any trail you want, energy comes in many flavors, but Kenny was hip to the Fun Vibe, and helped me understand and process a lot of what I’d been through in the ’60s and point me in the right direction again at a time when it was hard to stay centered. It was so weird because the entire art establishment was trying to write Kenny off as “lightweight”, while I found him to be one of the most spiritually enlightened people I’d ever encountered.
Anyway, what I really want to tell you is that Art After Midnight, long out-of-print, can be found on Amazon, Smashwords and iTunes.
“…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
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.
I was super disappointed with the layout and production of my first book, Hip Hop, so I brought in my own personal art director (Flick Ford) to lay out my second book, Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene.
Hip Hop was about the South Bronx in the 1970s, but my second book was going to be about how the punk movement and the hip hop movements collided in the East Village in the 1980s. The book has been out-of-print for decades and copies in good condition sell for over $100, so it’s about time it was released as an ebook at an affordable price. When it came out, a lot of critics thought it was a bit lightweight because it concentrated more on nightlife than art criticism, but many artists, including Kenny Scharf and Ann Magnuson, have recently told me it remains the definitive document of the Mudd Club and Club 57 era. The book is now available at Amazon, Smashwords and iTunes.