Top image: Lady Wrestling Night, Club 57, 1980. Pictured: Tom-Scully, Tish and Snooky Bellomo. Photograph by and courtesy Harvey Wang.
At first glance, Holy Cross Polish National Church on St. Mark’s, New York, may appear like any other church. Yet in the basement beneath its wooden floorboards, this was the revolutionary and experimental art venue at the heart of the Downtown NY scene. Populated by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Mr. Scharf, this was the legendary Club 57.
Whilst recognised among art circles, the club’s legendary status is somewhat obscure, having never been fully documented. However, the Museum of Modern Art’s latest exhibition, Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983, does just this, offering a rare insight into the legendary world and posing the question: How the basement of a church became home to New York City’s most prolific underground visionaries from across the globe?
Managed by Ann Magnuson, Club 57’s DIY aesthetic made it a hive for hipsters, poets, theme parties, experimentation and exploration. New and provocative, it allowed self-expression and transformation to grow through performance, fashion, art, and sexual and social activity. The landscape on which contemporary art is experienced and understood owes a lot to Club 57 and its pioneers.
Its transient nature paved the way for individuality and began a movement that reshaped the way art was consumed at both gallery and urban level, whilst – perhaps most importantly – creating a liberated space that encouraged social integration. With curators Ron Magliozzi and Sophie Cavoulacos (interviewed below) tracing the club’s history (its activity has never before been documented) this new exhibition recreates the infamous space by way of its unique memorabilia and mix media forms, such as motion picture; well-known for their Monster Movie nights.
Clementine Zawadzki: What inspired this exhibition about Club 57?
Ron Magliozzi: The exhibition started from my friendship with John “Lypsinka” Epperson. He’s a real movie lover and someone who’s done things with me at the museum before and we were talking about doing something drag for sometime, then he started talking about how he started doing drag at Club 57 and it just clicked. We were initially looking at doing a film series, then Sophie came on board and we started realising all of the other things that went on at the club. It had this amazing interdisciplinary range of activities.
Clementine: How long did it take to collate information and archival memorabilia to showcase?
Sophie Cavoulacos: Well that was in 2014…
Ron: Yeah, and little did we know that we would spend three years researching for this, I mean that’s the most fun part, it’s like detective work. This show was all about talking to people. So much of what’s been written about the Downtown scene in New York is anecdotal, so we decided we wanted to go beyond that and really try and do something about what actually happened and who was actually there, and we took Club 57 as a case study.
Sophie: Part of that was a catalogue of artwork, flyers and information about the club and the scene that hadn’t been researched or compiled until this point, so we researched for three years on its oral history; we did a whole series of interviews with club artists and performers to get the first person narrative from all of them. In many cases we were actually able to find the exact pieces that were exhibited at the venue, and for the very most part they’ve stayed in the artists’ collections and communities.
Ron: We literally found stuff in people’s closets and under their beds.
“That’s what set it apart from the more formal collectors or organisations that had a specific agenda in mind, it didn’t take itself seriously.”
Clementine: Why is the story of Club 57 so important?
Ron: As a case study of the whole scene – because Club 57 does blur into the Mudd Club and other places Downtown, but also what was happening in Toronto and London – what made it so important to us was the emotion in the art and performances happening there, in a bar. The art was exhibited in a space where people were drinking and smoking and actively taking drugs – as many people told us at the time.
Sophie: Yeah, and having sex too…
Ron: Yeah, and because at that time, museums were places where the galleries were quiet and that kind of stuff wasn’t allowed to happen. Now, museums around the world are trying – what we think of as ‘the club model’, in some ways – where the public can socialise around art in the way people did in the club period.
Sophie: The small, intimate, non-commercial scale of this art club that was staged in a church basement, allowed it to essentially be an alternative space of any discipline, night to night, and really cater and appeal to an extremely wide range of artists and non-artists. That’s what set it apart from the more formal collectors or organisations that had a specific agenda in mind, it didn’t take itself seriously.
Ron: It didn’t have funding; it didn’t have a liquor license.
Clementine: The environment was key for the concepts to be fully realised then.
Ron: It was a space that was open to anyone; Keith [Haring] did these invitations where he would allow anyone to take part and encourage anyone to contribute to a Zerox art show or an Erotic and Pornographic art show, whether they were talented or not. Everything was a performance; I make a point in my essay that if a feature sculpture fell of the wall, then that was the performance. Keith talks about when he was going out tagging the subways and how it was a kind of a performance activity.
Sophie: It’s not even that the exhibitions were lively; they were ephemeral and porous, like a live show. You had to be present in the moment.
Ron: It was also the last moment of pre-digital before it changed in the 90s, and of course because the neighbourhood was basically abandoned and the rent was cheap and it was a dangerous place, you could open a club and get by for a few years, because when the galleries start to move in, the Club 57 model and the Mudd Club model began to be better funded, and the bigger clubs started to open, the scene changed, and most of the artists left.
“Keith [Haring] did these invitations where he would allow anyone to take part and encourage anyone to contribute to a Zerox art show or an Erotic and Pornographic art show…”
Clementine: What set Club 57 apart from the other clubs in the scene at the time?
Sophie: The genial nature of the venue’s founder Stanley Strychacki defined the venue’s unique homey attitude. Strychacki emigrated from Poland with his mother, who occasionally spent time at the club. The scale of the church basement [Holy Cross Polish National Church on St. Mark’s] is another factor, with its low ceiling and assorted furniture, it felt more like a rec room than a nightclub. It was unique both in the social bonds and even in the format. The club was in a neighbourhood where so many creative people from all over the world lived, and their apartments were decrepit and small and infested and non-heated – any combination of those things – and they’d say, “My apartment was my bedroom and the club was my living room.”
Ron: They found materials on the street; a fabulous wire dress was made from hat wires that someone bought for like 79 cents, plastic trash bags were also used.
Clementine: How did the artists at Club 57 encapsulate and instigate this new art scene and drag?
Ron: The human body becomes the scene of art; so there’s portraiture, caricature and impersonation. Gender and identity is part of the mix; this was before RuPaul came to New York, so it was before the drag scene really took off. This was a period when androgyny was acceptable with David Bowie, and the New York Dolls, but full-on drag was still a bit segregated. It started particularly at Club 57; some of the major artists moved onto the Pyramid the next year in ’84 – ’85, and it explodes after that. I was in New York at the time, but I didn’t go to the East Side because it scared me too much, I always lived Uptown. The East Side was generally too dangerous, so actually doing the show was cool, because I wasn’t part of that scene.
Sophie: On one side we have androgyny and the male performance, and on the other side we have punk feminism, which was kind of linear to the fashions and personas that clubwomen and artists across the scene were making. Gender, sexuality and violence were all part of the vocabulary that you see in the performance and art. People were coming from all over to New York to reinvent themselves and get into the punk scene in ’77 and ’78, and then there’s this hybrid on the other side that leads to the explosion of the ‘80s.
Ron: Yeah, the post-punk period which they called the No Wave period of cinema started the breakdown of boundaries between the Downtown scene – because in the West Side bar scene; the male bars were male only and the women bars were women only – but they were mixed on the East Side club scene. The punk feminism stuff mixed with the male burlesque stuff, and that’s also something culture in general has absorbed.
Sophie: It’s what you’d call gender fluidity.
Ron: Yeah, and they were very open about drug taking and telling us, “I don’t remember anything about that night, I was completely stoned or on mushrooms.” Kenny [Scharf] and Keith [Haring] had this Cosmic Closet, or ‘Cosmic Cavern’ that Kenny’s been doing ever since – but basically – they had this kind of psychedelic space with DayGlo where they took drugs. Kenny’s doing this for our exhibition – but it’s going to be alcohol and drug free.
Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983 runs until 1st April at MoMA, New York