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Reflections on the Rivington Sculpture Garden: Controlled Chaotic Sprawl or Temporary Autonomous Zone?

by Michael Carter

[Note: This piece concerns the Rivington School, a group of New York City sculptors who built a number of “sculpture gardens” of junk metal surrounding squatted land. It was written by the poet Michael Carter in 1994 for Shalom Neuman of Fusion Art. It was not published. --Alan Moore]

''"The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to reform elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it...." --Hakim Bey, TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone)''

''"Hey you, go get a six pack!" --Ray Kelly''

In 1984 the East Village art scene was already in full bloom, its most renowned artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat almost literally becoming major stars and millionaires overnight. Born of a combination outsider attitude and shrewd commercial hype-- not to mention the vested interests of real speculators, the East Village scene continued to mutate and proliferate, drawing all manner of artists, musicians, writers, dancers, and thrillseekers to the area, and spawning such varied alternative performance spaces as Limbo Lounge, 8BC, Darinka, the non-profit ABC No Rio, and the raw and rustic No Se No Social Club. No Se No, a small storefront on Rivington Street near Forsyth, which had been a Puerto Rican Social Club in an earlier incarnation, was itself the outgrowth of two earlier projects/spaces: Arleen Schloss' Club A and Schloss' and Michael Keane's Armageddon, both of which drew from the late seventies performance scene as well as the burgeoning East Village. Due, however, to the club's looser, ad-hoc sensibility, the high-risk neighborhood, and the stewardship of Ray Kelly, R.L. Seltman and Jack Smead (as well as Keane and Schloss), No Se No quickly asserted a totally distinct identity. Some saw it as another hole in the wall where loud beer-swilling idiots could meet with like, act out their frustrations, and where whiskey was cheap; others saw it as a sanctuary from the quickly commercializing, gentrifying, rigidifying East Village scene. For a whole group of performers who cut their teeth in '83-'84, No Se was an important place to meet and mix, a small venue where you could embarrass yourself any way you wanted, and only friends (and the stray heckler or two) would care, maybe even call it art. The No Se aesthetic was anarchic, open to suggestion as well as desecration. At its best, this gave it a raw energy, vitality and democracy very different from the gallery-head or club-kid mentality, though of course there was more than a little overlap. In 1984, No Se's "99 Nights" featured a different performer every consecutive night-- some famous, some notorious, most basically unknown-- and widened the scope and multiplicity of visitors and regulars to the club and the adjoining area, where raucous Bud-and-coke-fueled parties would rage through morning 'til nearly noon. Drawn by the excitement and cheaper rents, two artists-- Jim C. and Fred Bertucci-- opened up storefronts adjacent to No Se No as small, similarly ad-hoc, 'galleries' in 1985: Nada and Freddy the Dreamer, respectively. Jim C. had previously organized group exhibitions-- featuring many of the East Village's leading lights-- in the loft he shared with artist Edward Brezinski (calling it "Magic Gallery"); Bertucci, painter and Viet vet, was a friend of Kelly and Schloss. These two galleries along with the No Se club, attracted a still wider range of artists (painters and sculptors, primarily) to the area, and set the scene for the creation of the Rivington Sculpture Garden. The lot on the corner of Forsyth and Rivington was basically empty, except for scattered debris and a makeshift shack (a glorified wooden box really) of a notoriously whacked-out wino and frequenter of No Se No called Geronimo (no one knew if that was really his name or merely a sobriquet honestly won for always shoutimg the same when he entered the club or downed a Bacardi...) Geronimo , who built his own sculptural objects, died in 1985, andKelly claims the sculpture garden was originally intended as a tribute him. Artists exhibiting at Nada--first Susan Strande with sculptures made of cow bones, then Luca Pizzorno and Anne Jepsen with an outdoor installation comprised of bedsprings and easter eggs-- began using the lot as an adjunct to the tiny gallery space, and bands like Vacuum Bag, Babalu and Demo Moe performed there. In the spring of 1985, the first more or less permanent sculpture began to appear: a photo by Toyo taken in June '85 shows a huge stone carved by Ken Hiratsuka and Toyo's own "White Column" (a sewer pipe on end), as well as wall paintings by Andrew Castrucci, Rachelle Garniez and Kevin Wendall (aka FA-Q), later added-to by Strande, Geoff Gilmore and many others. But the metal/debris sprawl that most distinctively characterized the garden began to emerge later that summer when sculptor Robert Parker (a longtime friend of Kelly and Schloss) deposited there the remains of a taxi previously cut into pieces for an installation at Colin De Land?'s Vox Populi gallery in the East Village (which was later sold to The World, an infamous nightclub). By the end of 1985, No Se No had already begun mutating from a performance-bar to a gallery space, and the gallery--along with the free space afforded by the lot on Forsyth-- attracted a primarily male contingent of metal sculptors and "outlaw/asshole" street artists, while performances and bands moved downstairs to the basement space, run by Liz and Tenesh Webber. Kelly--himself a metal sculptor who had long ago installed a huge steel ring which showered mist outside No Se No-- along with Parker and Linus Coraggio, and later joined by Bertucci, Ed Higgins, Jack Vengrow, Tovey Halleck, Jeff Perren, and many others, began welding the bulwark of the sculptural sprawl. The garden itself became for many a de-facto welding workshop, and by the end of 1986 a handful of women artists--Ingrid Andresen, Megan, Andrea Legge, Maria Mingalone and others-- had become a part of the emerging Rivington School. Individual sculptured articles-- by Kelly, Corragio, Halleck, Hiratsuka, Kazuko, Kelly, Pizzorno, Parker, Toyo, Ed Herman, Krzysztof Zarebski, Paolo Buggiani, and most notably Vengrow's huge Giaccometi-like "Venus of Rivington"--were subsumed by the burgeoning, connective metal virus, which in a few short years dominated the entire lot. The walls surrounding the lot were also decorated with colorful street paintings, both by Rivington School members and others.In the summers of '85, '86 and '87 (even in winter), the sculpture garden--as it was quickly dubbed--became a vibrant locus for performance art, bands and diverse other social events, planned and otherwise. And though the No Se sculptors and other Rivington regulars felt they had laid claim to the space, the lot itself became a kind of open No Man's Land, where ad hoc contigents of artists, musicians as well as the local, mostly hispanic community, could perform, add to the junk-sculpture or just plain congregate. Nada Gallery instigated a series of one person installations with prominent East Village artists like Rick Prol, Daze, James Romberger, Peggy Cyphers and Mark Kostabi, which drew the more adventurous partisans of the "uptown" (i.e. north of Houston St.) scene, while No Se and the garden itself began attracting major New York City press, as well as national and international attention, especially from the Italians and Japanese. In 1986,to celebrate the garden's one-year anniversary, Toyo singlehandedly bathed the entire steel-and-debris behemoth in white paint , lending the space a strangely spiritual glow. During late '85-'86, Shalom Neuman, a painter and sculptor whose studio was around the corner on Stanton St., began contributing to the sculptural sprawl, and also organized performance and poetry events there. These germinated with the Fusion Arts Festival in March 1986, staged at his studio and in the adjacent streets, which featured works by over a hundred artists, readings by Miguel Algarin, Zoe Angelesy, Dorothy Friedman, Mike Golden, Richard Kostelanetz, Patrick Mc Grath? and Nina Zivancevic (among others) and musical performances by John King, Missing Foundation, Demo Moe, Vacuum Bag, Ritual Tension and many others. I myself curated a small East Village type art show in the Lamento Borincano social club next door... Later in '86, Shalom produced a number of multimedia performance events, usually with artist Eric Bemisderfer, musician/composer Marc Sloan, electronic artist Phil Rostek and other artists, writers, dancers and musicians, including many of the Rivington Street regulars, at the sculpture site itself, usually incorporating its welded turrets and snarls of steel as stage and backdrop. These events, as with many other performances in the garden, drew on avant-garde syntheses as old as Dada and Futurism, as well as sixties Happenings and seventies performance art, melding art, film, dance and usually noisy music (though composers like Charlie Morrow and Moki Cherry also contributed.) Notorious "neoist" and multimedia artist Monty Cantsin (a.k.a Istvan Kantor) staged memorable performances there, as did dancer/choreographer Gloria Mc Lean?, and the sheet-metal music duo of Steve Hagglund and Michael Zwicky (also of Demo Moe). The sculpture garden events, like the No Se performances and Fusion fest, brought together artists with a wide variety of aesthetic and social views. What they shared was the place and time, something like Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone, a locus whose very perimeters were constantly mutating and in doubt-- a large part of its appeal was based on its very impermanence. And though the events might be raucous or serene, the place itself gave rise to a distinctive spirit and style, a Mulligans Stew of the pluralistic '80s strained through a thirty-foot colander of steel and debris. That style had as its hallmarks a whirlwind spontaneity, a markedly anti-commercial impulse, and an implicit acceptance of the great role the transfiguration of trash has played in contemporary art. In this, the sculpture garden stood as a contemporary and very urban vindication of the Duchampian Readymade. It was also very influenced by (though by no means reducible to) the emergent "trash-or-be-trashed" whiteboy graffiti ethic/aesthetic of the Rivington School, grounded as much in beer-swilling macho posturing as a very real understanding of the ephemeral nature and value of art. Of course, any scene based in the ephemeral has already predicated its inevitable destruction; in the case of the garden itself, this end was hastened when the lots owners decided to develop the lot and to raze the sculpture in November 1987. Despite appeals to officials to recognize and thereby save the site, the bulldozers came, though some of the steel was disassembled, then moved and reassembled over the next few years by the Rivington School in another vacant lot on Forsyth, next to a storefront Kelly used as a welding studio. This second garden also played host to a great many performances and public events, with many of the same participants, yet was in truth more a glorified fence around territory the 'School itself had claimed. It too was slated for development and razed in 1992. The galleries on Rivington St. had already closed in '87 and '88, No Se No being the last in ‘88(?). The Sculpture Garden aesthetic survives in the fence and environs surrounding The Gas Station on Second Street and Ave B., a still vital performance space begun as an artist studio in '86 by Coraggio, Vengrow, and Bill Fien (scene of the infamous final performance by the late human animal G.G. Allin.) In 1991, a "miniature" version of the steel sprawl, with signature contributions by most of the major 'School members, was reproduced at P.S.1 in Queens. The Rivington Street sculpture and multimedia performance style had a major influence on later events in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, especially the Cats Head, Flytrap and Mustard scenes, as well as upon other venues in New York and elsewhere. It is the "spirit" of the Rivington Garden which most survives, continues to mutate, and most closely approximates the metaphor of the TAZ: "The TAZ involves a kind of ferality, a growth from tameness to wild(er)ness, a "return" which is also a step forward." (TAZ, p. 134.) One would like to think that's what makes art exciting in the first place...

Michael Carter, NYC, 5/21/94.

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