Join Toyo Tsuchiya on a Wild Ride Through New York’s “Invisible Underground”

Photo: © Toyo Tsuchiya. From the series No Se No 99 Nights, 1983.

Picture It: New York City, summer of 1983. For 99 nights in a row, at a little spot called No Se No (Spanish for “I don’t know nothing”) down on the Lower East Side hosted a cabaret unlike anything that would ever see the light of day. It was strictly underground, for those in the know, a raw artistic explosion of anything goes.

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On any given night, you could have wandered in only to discover Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis performing Ripping Off Layers to Find Roots, the one-act play James Dean wrote for his audition at The Actors Studio. Another night you stumble upon Yugoslavian artist Dragan Ilic with power tools duct-taped to his biceps and back, furiously hammering pencils into the bar. Still another night could see girls from around the way jump on the bar and dance to Michael Jackson ‘cause Thriller was everything back in the days.

Photo: © Toyo Tsuchiya. From the series No Se No 99 Nights, 1983.

99 Nights, as the performance art festival was known, was a pure, unbridled New York phenomenon featuring a melange of song and dance, poetry and beyond. It was unlike anything the city had ever seen before—or since—and were it not for the photographs of Japanese artist Toyo Tsuchiya, most of us would have missed it entirely. Tsuchiya was there nearly every night, camera in hand, documenting the scene with casual insouciance. His photographs are simple straightforward affairs that embrace the edge wholeheartedly, never gawking or gaping but rather making the extraordinary and amazing a regular part of life.

Tsuchiya, who had arrived from Tokyo in 1980, began taking photographs at No Se No for artist Kwok Mang Ho, who had wanted to document the performances. Tsuchiya hung his prints on the wall of the bar, creating a dazzling, dizzying effect of photography as an act of performance itself. Mounted on black paper, the prints are visible in many of the photographs, speaking to the way in which the scene built itself from the inside out.

Photo: © Toyo Tsuchiya. From the series No Se No 99 Nights, 1983.

While taking the photographs Tsuchiya realized that this was a book, a story of the wild and wonderful, of the bold and the bawdy, of a city made up by people driven discover something they had never witnessed before. Patiently he waited—33 years—until the day his dreams came true with the publication of Toyo Tsuchiya: Invisible Underground, which accompanies an exhibition of the same name currently on view at Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project, New York, through December 21, 2016.

The book, which features superb essays by David Dalton and Carlo McCormick, exclusively covers 99 Nights, but the exhibition goes further, embracing Tsuchiya’s drawings, paintings, and sculpture work. Taken as a whole, both exhibition and book are a tribute to New York, to the Lower East Side when it was driven by D.I.Y. culture from all walks of life.

Three Men on Bowery (After Toyo’s 1983 photo) 2011, charcoal on arches paper 52 14 x 66 3/4 inches

There is a magnificent charcoal drawing, Three Men on Bowery (2011) made after Tsuchiya’s 1983 photograph depicting three homeless men the artist had befriended during the summer. He tells a classic New York story, remembering of  how he did a one-night performance art piece in collaboration with one of the men, who was a Squeegee Guy. Back then homeless men would pop up at red lights offering to clean the windshields of cars with Squeegees or rags; Tsuchiya joined him and that night they made $30 together.

Tsuchiya recounts another story of riding along Chrystie Street on his bike and passing a group of young men who had taken a break from their job as metal workers to post up on the curb and enjoy their lunch. He realized that he had to have that photo, and circled back, taking a snapshot of the scene that he later rendered as a charcoal drawing (2011) and a mixed-media sculpture (2016). Both works are included in the show and as Tsuchiya reflects on them he begins to glow. He speaks sparingly, allowing his art to fill in the blanks, alluding to an innate kinship he felt with the crew living their life just as he was living his.

Toyo Tsuchiya Immigrant Workers 2019 mixed media dimensions variable

Neighborhood and community are the central theme uniting the many works on view in Invisible Underground. Here, we are reminded of Old York, of a city for the strong of heart with nerves of steel who didn’t blink; they just kept on keeping on, doing what they needed to survive.

It was a city where a Dominican social club could easily morph into a No Wave clubhouse and no one would bat an eye when local rooster Montmerency came in for his shot glass of whiskey. It was a place where someone would call the cops on the joint, but instead of making arrests or shutting the place down, they would come to watch the latest performance art piece before heading off to deal with real crimes. It was a town where creativity and innovation reigned supreme because without the trappings of wealth, New York was ripe for an explosion in the Invisible Underground.

Photo: © Toyo Tsuchiya. From the series No Se No 99 Nights, 1983.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.