Gestalt in the Bowery

The art and trash left behind by a culture’s unconscious acts measures that culture’s truth. Cave paintings, investment banks, chapel ceilings and landfills all occupy the same portion of the conscious and contrived. They are controlled, reflecting intent and method.

When a collective of people act and improvise individually according to their respective desires, but do so with similar intent, like water molecules acting together as the tide, the result is, at once, random, calculable and awe inspiring. Culture is an ocean. The collective is a tributary. Gestalt is the sky.

Carnival barkers crucified circa 1977

The walls of CBGB, the Punk music club in New York City’s Bowery, were true, ambitious, calculated, spiraling and unconscious. Control that could have been exercised over the crucifixion of cheap playbills was turned over to the gods and chance. The air and culture was saturated. That single, never-ending, unanswerable, existential question floated between the walls and hovered while musicians, artists, writers and thinkers tried to grab it, like reaching into a swarm of flies, with the desire to shackle it and jam it down a listener’s throat. Philosophies, schools and ideas were smashed together, bash printed on the cheapest crap available, and then stapled to the plaster with hope.

Mother of cheapest crap #1 — Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock was the most famous abstract expressionist painter. His iconic drip paintings combine chaos with intent — an unusual amalgam. Free form improvisational jazz was wooed into a free-for-all by the sirens of Japanese calligraphy. And, as much as I like that idea, the disparity between the concept and the execution leaves much to be desired. Pollock’s work, at the end of the day, is just pretty.

Mother of cheapest crap #2— Willem Dekooning

Dekooning is different. His best work — the “Woman” series from 1948–1952 — is stunning. So much so that, if one first sees the work in print, one might expect the paintings to be the size of a building. They’re that powerful. The atmosphere in each painting is a broken fly wheel, still spinning at a five thousand rpm, throwing off bits and teeth at the world around a single frontal female form.

Some critics and viewers consider these paintings to be a violent statement expressed against the female model. I don’t. Instead, I believe that Dekooning’s paint renders the violence in the atmosphere around the female form. Here, the Buddhist concept of inter-dependence applies. The air around a cup is as much a part of the cup as is the clay from which the cup is made. The female forms in his paintings are serene; the world is violent.

I imagine that, when Dekooning was painting, he smashed a few paintbrushes, and slashed a few palette knives, across the canvas. But, much like the aftermath of a dog or bear having picked through the trash — slowly and methodically — the mess left behind leads one to believe a bacchanal transpired. In fact, if captured on film, the trash-picking usually appears to take place in slow motion.

Thus the inter-dependence.

Mother of cheapest crap #3— Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol built his art empire around celebrity, mass communication, print reproduction and, if nothing else, the grit and grime of New York City in the 50s, 60s and 70s. He defined techniques for the sculpting of an artist’s public image and opened the door for crass self promotion to transform one’s life. Warhol sandwiched cheapness, vanity and a profound superficiality between two invisible slices of charismagic.

Craftsmanship meant nothing; fame was the grail. Without ever having bent a small piece of metal, it’s as if Warhol actually invented the staple.

Mother of cheapest crap #4 — Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp liberated Dada from the children and the absurd. He captured that unsettled weirdness that occupies a small piece of every soul. He picked facts out of silence and contrived the usual into art. Stories with completely unrelated beginnings, middles and ends were never told but easily found. The broken, the obvious, the powerless and the nude were among his most interesting paintbrushes.

Mother of cheapest crap #5 — Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg took Duchamp’s foundation and had fun. He introduced time, circus and toys into the world of Dada — with roller skates, flags, taxidermy, goats, trash and smears. He found art in a place where it hadn’t been found before…and hasn’t since.

Clown car confluence

With the exception of Duchamp, each of the artists above lived and worked at the same time; all expressing themselves intimately and publicly. They pushed boundaries like four gigantic bulldozers moving a mountain of dirt toward a sunrise or a cliff, dragging the culture behind them on a warehouse skid. Each virtuoso playing an instrument in a silo, never having moshed, but sharing the gestalt.

The rancid public art of CBGB

The walls of CBGB, and the space in between the walls, defined Punk inter-dependence by standing on the shoulders of the greatest 20th century artists, and did so completely by accident. Trash was stapled to trash that was stapled to the walls. In places, it was two inches thick. Playbills, posters, band stickers, pop manifestos, sheet music, socks, underwear, poems and staples — millions of staples — were all jammed on to the walls. Vulgar, violent, commercial, artful crud begged for attention and was torn down almost as quickly as it was posted. The bands and musicians were blind baby birds, necks extended to the heavens, with beaks wide open, screaming and waiting to be fed.

In print or in electronic form, like the image above, the walls of CBGB were an orgy of Pollock, Dekooning, Warhol, Rauschenberg and Duchamp. A trash skeleton, fully alive with the stench of stale beer, rebirth, past lives and chance. The sum total of charisma, energy and serendipity offered proof that life is truly unfair. Chaos reigned, soaked with performance, music, circus, epiphanies and desire. CBGB is missed and dead.


One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.