Following inspiration and opportunity from Detroit and Windsor to Spanish Harlem and the East Village, this segment spray paints a few pictures of life as it was in the centre of the Art World: 1980's New York City.
Interview by Garret S. - DMS
You moved to NYC in 1983 from Windsor, Ontario. How would you describe the creative energy of New York at that time?
The energy of New York was, and will always be amazing, though I think it may have changed quite a bit. Back in the early 80’s one could find a living space that was perhaps run down but somewhat affordable. I don’t think that’s the case these days. It’s so expensive that it is even harder for young creative people to get started there.
Our first apartment was in a 6-floor building in Washington Heights that had been so neglected by the landlord that it had to be administered by the city. There was no functioning front door, the elevator rarely worked and the super - Carlos - was a drug dealer. The place was a total dump, but for $300 a month we had a two bedroom apartment in Upper Manhattan. Once we cleaned the place up it was not too bad.
172nd St. & Ft. Washington Ave, Manhattan NYC
I have a ton of stories from that building, tales from the insane urban pioneer front. Like the time we kept hearing a chorus of roosters crowing at the crack of dawn from the apartment next door. Turned out the guy had quite an enterprise in there; roosters for cock-fights, hens for eggs. 20 birds in a two bedroom apartment.
Or the time I discovered the flood on the roof, late one rainy night after hearing water cascading down the stairwell in the hallway. This was bizarre; we lived on the fourth floor and you don’t expect to see a river flowing down the stairs. I walked up three flights to the roof to discover that the entire rooftop had flooded with at least two feet of water. It was like a giant swimming pool.
Visions of a calamitous collapse immediately flashed in my head. I ran down to the lobby to tell Carlos, but crack dealers need their sleep so it took A LONG TIME to get his full attention. When he finally opened his door and was greeted with Niagara Falls flowing down the stairwell into the lake that was forming in the lobby, he burst into action.
It turned out the roof drains had become covered with debris. Carlos embraced his inner hero, went up there and freed the drains. It was a miracle the building didn’t collapse.
As far as the neighbourhood is concerned, it was mostly hispanic families from Dominican Republic with a few intrepid artistic types sprinkled in. English was rarely heard in the bodegas and restaurants along Upper Broadway. Some of the friendliest people I've ever met lived there, hard working families, mothers with kids, intermingled with the inevitable gangsters and drug dealers.
Corner of 172nd and Broadway, Washington Heights, NYC
Among our immediate neighbours in the building were aspiring theatrical performers, an up-and-coming opera singer from Florida and a rock musician from Indiana. We were all scraping by in this derelict building, trying to gain a foothold in the most important cultural city in the world.
Wow, so this was a VERY different scenario from Windsor!
Yes, that would be a monumental understatement. But, having spent my formative years in downtown Detroit, the noise, the violent, slightly out of control feeling in the air kinda felt like home.
NYC Subways in the 80's. Hot, loud and Hellish.
How did this change affect your artwork?
Well, the sheer energy of the place was like rocket fuel. It was inspiring to be embedded in such a diverse neighbourhood and to be among other creative artists who had the level of commitment required to move to such a monstrous, fantastic place. It ‘raises your game' to be in a situation like that. And it was the centre of the art world as well; one could go to galleries and see cutting edge current art or world class museums to see historical masterpieces.
I can’t say the city increased the sense of urgency I brought to my work; that was already firmly established. I just funnelled the energy into my work. Having a show lined up at a gallery meant that I had potential access to an audience, so all in all it pushed me into some new directions and techniques that were perhaps a little more edgier than the work I was doing before I moved.
'The Face Bandit' Acrylic, graphite, wax on canvas (1985)
Looking back, what is your impression of the Art Scene at that time?
Well, the big established galleries like Leo Castelli and OK Harris were located uptown and in SoHo, but in terms of current art, the East Village was really the focus.
Starting in the late 70’s, all kinds of storefront galleries and studios started opening up there. Back then it was just a run-down neighbourhood of small apartment buildings; a bit of a ‘no-man’s land’, full of drugs and squatters and impoverished immigrants from eastern Europe.
Artists moved there because it was cheap. And that, in turn, brought the galleries, many of which were run by artists. At one point there were over 100 art galleries just in this one neighbourhood.
East Village Eye, 1986
The East Village / Lower East Side was where artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat came up, concurrent with musicians like The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie starting off at CBGB’s. Broadly speaking, the energy was 'punk'; manifesting as raw-edged, untrained and immediate.
By the time I got there in '83 the scene was in full flight and just starting to attract the interest of designer stores and developers, which would, by the late 80’s, force many artists and galleries to relocate. But back in ’83 it was still bristling with that punk energy.
Graffitti, East Village 1983
My initial exhibit in '84 was uptown, at Schiffman Gallery at 71st Street and Central Park West. But I knew the action was downtown, so after that first show I focused on getting a foothold in the East Village. I started participating in group shows in many of those small East Village galleries; Nico Smith, Now Gallery and Eastman-Whamendorf, among others.
Every third Thursday night of the month you could just go from gallery to gallery, drinking wine and seeing the art, talking to the crazy, inspired people who were all there at that time.
Partial map of East Village Galleries, 1983
By '86 I had signed an exclusive contract with Helio Gallery on St. Mark's Place and 3rd Avenue. A terrific gallery; one of the best in the area. I had several solo and group shows there. In 1990, Helio moved to upscale 588 Broadway in SoHo; I had one show in that location. Then in '91 the economy tanked and Helio, like many other galleries, closed its doors. The punk energy of the East Village was replaced by Starbucks, The Gap and expensive condos and in the process a new chapter had begun.
Matthew Giffin solo show at Helio Galleries, SoHo NYC (1990)
Do you feel like the excitement of those early days came through in the work you were creating?
Yes, I believe so. I was discovering as I went, both personally and artistically. And although my work did not follow the style of so-called ‘punk art’, the path I chose to take as an artist certainly paralleled that self-taught, 'DIY' mindset. That process of discovery is a good thing to express, and necessary if one is to evolve.
And it’s so much more moving for an audience to feel like you’re in that journey with the artist.
Yes, absolutely. The known is a boring place; the unknown is where it’s at. Listen to Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Or Miles Davis. Those guys take you on a journey. That’s the pinnacle of art, it seems to me.
if I can go on a compelling creative journey then I know that will be transmitted to the audience. I want to be surprised: “Wow, how did this happen? How did we get here? I don’t know specifically what this is, but it feels true.” Art becomes a process of discovery in this way, and that is fascinating, like watching a fire.
And isn’t that just like the journey of life itself? You never really know what you’re going to do next or even what you’re going to say. It is a creative process from start to finish; that’s how it works. It's a journey that reveals itself as you go.
So, my goal has always been the same: to go on the adventure, befriend the unknown, experience the conflict, and bring back something beautiful and life-affirming to share.