In 1979, when a Chicago disc jockey blew up numerous disco records at Comiskey Park in Chicago, it was America’s underbelly of white trash declaring that they demanded their culture back from the folks who had inadvertently overshadowed it. These folks were everything the trash hated – gays, independent women, folks of color. But even though disco “died” shortly afterwards, America was altered beyond a scope imaginable by the underbelly. As 1979 showed a last desperate gasp of intolerance, so did 2016 following America’s first black president. The election of 2016 was, to a great extent, America’s latest disco demolition night. It too has passed.
JoAnne Artman Gallery takes a peek at the effects of disco through That 70s Show: Saturday Night Fever, a group show demonstrating curatorial choices influenced by the disco era that reach over to today. As we stand at the cusp of possibly eliminating the coronavirus, the 70s may have some resonance and relevance in our lives as we prepare to let loose once again. Disco culture followed Vietnam and Watergate, when faith in the US government was waning and the country felt enervated by a senseless and cruel war that never could have been won. Disco was one part rejection, perhaps one part denial and one part coming out as the musical culture innovated by the gay community was too vibrant and dynamic to be repressed. Gay folks moved from the margins of US society to the center of its popular culture, a feminine energy took over as disco divas openly sang about the pleasures of sex, and the American man was challenged to change with the times, to dress and be more cool, to drop the beer belly and to learn how to dance and look pretty. The hedonism, drugs and self-destruction one equates with Studio 54 was due to the over-commercialization of the culture.
Anja Van Herle has become well-known for her paintings of women in ambiguous psychological states wearing stylish glasses. In this show we see a non-portrait but still work readily recognizable as Van Herle’s. Fashion eye frames are a de rigueur accessory to reflect the personality of the subject – so what are we to make of a woman with a star-spangled bikini as well as a leopard print? The piece was included in the show due to the toy duck – a playful reference to Rick Dees top-40 hit Disco Duck. Yet, disco was a phenomenon that only could have happened in the USA, where we have social and racial segregation as well as the means for marginalized cultures to break through and contribute culturally for significant profit. To me the bikini and leopard print represent the fact that in the US we create the oppressive social conditions that allow for the development of alternative cultures, then, ironically, we embrace and celebrate these cultures as American creations (jazz and blues followed this course as well).
Greg Miller uses the cover of the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever and the album as types of canvases on which to present various forms of ephemera related to the 1970s which include archival text, illustration, newspaper clips and photos. How legible are the 1970s, a time of immense transition and change, to us now? Your eyes scan these pieces, recognizing little tidbits and trying to come up with an overall assessment, yet the assessment was always to be found in the moment, music itself and the club life within the times. It reminded me of Leopardi’s poem (translated as) “The Evening of the Holiday” where the festival is over, folks have wandered back home and one wonders what hardships life might be dealing one in the future. The effort to try to recapture parts of the 70s shows how immense this period was and how high-powered, disruptive, dynamic and reformist. The running of paint down the images could represent the passage of time or entropy or the impossibility of ever fully capturing the era, or disappointment. It seemed as if it the party was never going to end, until AIDS ended it. Disco is somewhat like the founder of jazz, Buddy Bolden. No recordings remain of his work, but the ephemera is there to point to his achievement. Miller’s work seems to say we still have the disco recordings, but they have become ephemera to a great extent as well, pointing to a past but also a contemporary state of affairs influenced by that culture.
John “Crash” Matos was a pioneer in street/graffiti art. He began “bombing” or “tagging” subway trains when he was 13 years old, in the mid-70s, and in 1980 he curated Graffiti Art Success for America at Fashion MODA. One of the earliest graffiti artists to move to the canvas and gallery, he is currently the co-owner of the gallery Wallworks New York. As JoAnne Artman explained to me, he brings the color and feel of 1970s street art to the show. Indeed, we are reminded of how graffiti art was criminalized by Mayors Lindsay and Koch, and how Koch surrounded train yards with two-layered fences topped with barbed wire, German Shepherds prowling the grounds, in a vain attempt to stop the graffiti artists. Like Disco, street art was a movement of and by people who were not supposed to matter, but who began to assert themselves in ways that could no longer be ignored or suppressed.
Jana Cruder’s photographic series We Knew Then helps puts the lie to Tom Wolfe’s quip that the 70s were the “me” decade. Cruder’s photos of female protesters advocating for more compassion hearken back, for me, to Carol Gilligan’s 70s book A Different Voice, in which she presents evidence that women are more compassionate and predisposed toward mercy than men. Indeed, the 1970s was the decade in which women truly found a voice. Cruder depicts female protesters actively advocating for more humanity and morality in the world while also displaying photos of individual female struggle, such as a chic but forlorn woman hunched over her kitchen table, staring into space, holding a baby bottle. The photos show the 70s as a time of decision making and transition, as a painful process for many women who could no longer do, in good conscience, what was expected of them.
In his career as an artist, Michael Callas has often been interested in the extent to which stories can emerge from color and he therefore focuses on contrasts between colors as well as working with single hues and exploring their shades and tints. He came to art through architecture, dropping out of a program after a professor told his class that the days of Frank Llyod Wright were over and that architects were now little more than debt-ridden proletarians. Architectural drafting is, however, still important to his work. He uses spray paint and stencils and he boasts thousands of aerosol spray cans in his studio. In two pieces in this show we see his inclination toward structure and symmetry and, how using the same stencils, he can create completely differing works of meaning and impact through experimentation with color. In the past artists who experimented with abstraction wished for an effect on the viewer through color which often never occurred beyond theory. Callas seems to have realized that cognition has to play a role in the creation of a piece of abstract art and its interpretation. Callas’ process mirrors that of disco, where one extracts a liberating narrative, testimony and effect from what was intended to be industrial and commercial.
Saturday Night Fever was a film about a vague sense of desire and hope that percolated up from the black, Latinx, gay and white working-class segments of American society. Desire is a painful thing that can produce joy and consummation. Ultimately disco was destroyed through self-excess and the money-men. But this show helps us to realize that the values created by these seemingly peripheral folks have slowly moved toward being core values in contemporary American life.