Punk + Art = 98bowery.com
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion at the New Museum reflecting on the ways in which CBGB and the downtown music scene in the 1970s and 80s impacted the visual arts at that time. The panel – Parallel Lines: Visual Art, CBGB, and Downtown Nightlife – was part of the New Museum’s broader exhibition, “Art in the Bowery”, and featured five panelists who were each actively involved in the New York City punk scene at that time. For now I want to focus solely on one of the panelists, Marc H. Miller, and his website 98bowery.com.
Back in 1978, Miller co-created the “Punk Art Exhibition” in Washington D.C., the world’s first exhibition to feature and define the subject. Miller coined the term “punk art,” and used it often during the discussion, describing it as “not really an art movement, but an attitude.” According to Miller, and with the agreement of the other panelists, the art world in New York City at that time had become a place where newcomers were not welcome. Gallery spaces were scarce, so if you weren’t already established as an artist you had little chance of breaking through. If (like me) your sense of the NYC art world is shaped by more recent times – a gallery on every corner it seems – this kind of NYC is hard to even imagine, let alone believe. But because new and experimental artists weren’t welcomed into the visual art world, they gravitated towards music, or at least to places like CBGB, which effectively became part music hall, part art gallery.
Fast forward then to 2009 and Miller’s launch of 98bowery.com. The site is Miller’s personal memoir of his time in the Lower East Side and you could tell from the way he spoke about it that he was very proud of his creation. 98bowery.com collects pictures accumulated from the years 1969-1989, attempting to show through the photos (and some video and audio as well) how the Lower East Side was one of, if not the creative center of the world during that era. Over the past few years I have developed an affinity for the era (and all things punk), and as a native and lifelong New Yorker was excited by the opportunity to “witness” a first-hand account of a truly remarkable time and place in our city’s history. To date, I’ve been a little disappointed that inasmuch as I can listen to the music and read about the history of the time, having not lived through the punk years I’ve always felt that a part of the essence of the punk attitude and scene was lost on me. Still, in the past few years have I begun to appreciate the brilliance of the music of that time – the Clash, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads – and their predecessor, the godfather of it all, the Velvet Underground.
When Andy Warhol discovered the Velvet Underground in 1966, teamed them up with Nico for their first album, and designed the sleeve for that album, he put the band and their front-man Lou Reed on the map. The album is a masterpiece and the cover art is arguably the most recognized album cover in music history. However, the impact he had on the intersection of art and music was so much greater than any impact he could have had on one artist or band. For the first time, the art and music worlds collided not as a mere byproduct of one another, nor even as complimentary pieces to a single theme. The Velvet Underground & Nico was the unification of the two mediums to create a single work of art that was at once both auditory and visual and required both senses to be properly received by the listener/viewer. Warhol’s vision to create a new form of visual art – art that could be listened to – was nothing short of brilliant, but even the great Warhol could not have foreseen the punk art scene that Miller lived through and documented a decade later.
In an interview conducted in 2010, Miller was asked what enticed him to re-visit his work and the Bowery scene over two decades later. His response is illuminating:
Life moves on. In 1989 I got married, left the Bowery for Park Slope and had two kids. Then a couple of years ago, I was in the process of moving again and confronted all the boxes from the 20 years I lived on the Bowery. The website literally came to me all at once. I knew exactly what I wanted to put on it and how it should be structured. The next day I registered the domain name 98bowery.com. […] The impulse for the site is partly rooted in my competitive spirit and desire to tell the story of these years from my perspective. Mostly though, I’m motivated by a love for the things on the site. I really enjoy revisiting the images and stories. I had a pretty good run from 1969 to 1989.
So there it is. All of us have photos of friends and family on shelves in our homes, maybe home video of our children or family vacations, and possibly you – like Miller – even saved some recordings of your friends left on answering machine tapes years and years ago. Very few of us have had the incredibly good fortune to have those memories coincide with and actually document one of the most exciting times in art and music history. Let’s face it – very few of us have thrown in to our boxes of old photos pictures of Patti Smith and Joey Ramone. Miller really did have a pretty good run from 1969 to 1989.
None of us lived through it quite like he did. But if you ever wanted to get a taste of what it felt like to live through this legendary era, feel the essence of punk, 98bowery.com is a site worth some of your time. Frankly, I wish more people with such rich historical life experiences would take the time to share them with the world as Miller does. I imagine a site that allows me to live through the Seattle alternative scene from the mid 80s through mid 90s, London during the time of the Beatles and Manchester during the heyday of the Smiths, San Francisco during the late 1960s, Woodstock and NYC in its immediate aftermath, and so much more. All shown through the eyes and ears of an insider at the time. As Miller states on the site, “It is autobiography and art history. It is a stage for my friends and me.” I’m just glad he shared.
 The other four participants were John Holmstrom, creator of Punk Magazine, Pat Place, a founding member of punk bands the Contortions and Bush Tetras, photographerMarcia Resnick and Arturo Vega, artistic director for the Ramones. I hope to profile each of them – especially Holmstrom and Vega – in subsequent posts.