Take a Trip Back to the 80s New York Underground & Visit the “Rivington School”

Photo: Plexus International Art Slavery Manifesto Group Shot at the Sculpture Garden, 1989. Photo by Plexus.

Back in the 1970s, the Lower East Side of New York City had been devastated by the government policy of “benign neglect,” which denied basic services to the community. Fires had destroyed buildings reducing them to rubble leaving vacant lots in their wake, while other buildings were abandoned and reclaimed by squatters, creating a new community born out of resilience and necessity.

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

By the 1980s, a subculture was finding its way through acts of outlaw art. “Cowboy” Ray Kelly, founder of the No Se No Social Club, cultivated a space where patrons could express themselves in any way they wished. It was a space unlike any other in the city that combined the performance art with bar life to spectacular effect.

The Rivington Garden as monument signalled the victorious end of art in the Lower East Side, 1987. Photo by Andre Laredo.

From this world, the Rivington School came forth, an outdoor guerilla art gallery located across the street from No Se No, on the corner of Rivington and Forsyth Streets. The Rivington Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1985, began as a memorial to Geronimo, a homeless Puerto Rican man who died that year. It quickly developed into a space for exhibitions, concerts, performances, and festivals, taking the D.I.Y. approach to making art. Anyone could do anything they liked and they did, effectively sharpening the cutting-edge.

The Rivington Sculpture Garden was destroyed more than once by the city authorities—and every time it was destroyed, it was rebuilt. Its construction/destruction is documented in the super-8 film ANTI CREDO by Monty Cantsin aka Istvan Kantor.

Caption: Jack Waters, artist/former director of ABC No Rio, 1983. Photo by Toyo Tsuchiya

Psycho Sex, rock’n’roll, 1983. Photo by Toyo Tsuchiya.

In celebration of this singular period in New York history and art, Istvan Kantor has assembled Rivington School: 80s New York Underground (Black Dog Publishing), a massive paperback that pays homage to the era. The book is a visual cacophony of image and text, evoking the spirit of the era to flawless effect. It is easy to get lost in the stories and the works of art, which are as fresh and raw today as they were more than thirty years ago.

The book features artwork by key figures of the time including EF Higgins III, David Mora Catlett, Shalom Neuman, Toyo Tsuchiya, Linus Coraggio, Paolo Buggiani, Tovey Haleck, Jack Vengrow, Ken Hiratsuka, and Geoff ‘Gizmo’ Gilmore, among many more, as well as a series of essays that provide context for the work and its significance.

Neoist performance/installation by Monty Cantsin. In the background Matty Jankowski with kids and Philip Hall, 1986. Photo by Toyo Tsuchiya

Rivington School artists posing for journalist, 1985–1987. Photo by Toyo Tsuchiya.

Rivington School is the story of resistance and resilience in the face of government abuse, showing the ways in which art can both unite the community and be used as a political tool. What remains of this era of the city’s history exists only in photographs, stories, and memory, for the politics of gentrification have done as much to erase the past as “benign neglect” did to destroy the people where they lived. The book is a reminder to never forget the truth.\

All photos: ©2016 Black Dog Publishing Limited, the artist and authors. All rights reserved.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.