Black & White Photos by Marion Scemama 1984, Color Photo by Andres Sterzing 1983
Civilian Warfare Gallery was in the gritty East Village of New York City 1982-1987.
Two young gay men, Alan and Dean, turned the art world on its ear in just two years by exhibiting some of the most controversial art that would have a lasting impact on not only the art world but culture in a city that demanded success and boundary-breaking. A tough audience indeed, one that could be critical and kill a career or lavish praise that elevated larger than life experiences. New York would embrace this small gallery and look to it for art that reflected the mean life of Ronald Reagan’s America. This was thought-provoking art that gave artists the freedom to express what they were experiencing.
1982 New York City on the corner of Eleventh Street and Second Avenue a disheveled woman was standing on a plastic milk crate shaking her fist in the air yelling “The Russians are coming and it’ll be fucking civilian warfare in the streets of New York!” Dean was passing by and took note of this lunatic behavior on his way to his job at an art supply store. Civilian Warfare Gallery was born.
Artists included David Wojnarowicz, gay activist, writer, filmmaker, performance artist and AIDS activist whose art would inflame Jesse Helms and The American Family Association. He was frequently referred to as the soul of the East Village.
Greer Lankton had a body of work that changed everyone who was exposed to it by how she presented the human body, challenging our perceptions and values. One exhibition was censored by pressure from the local community and religious groups. She had undergone sexual reassignment at an early age before gender identity was a commonplace discussion.
Another artist, Judy Glantzman; had her show pulled from the lobby of Citicorp headquarters due to the complaints of a viewer. This was warfare in the belief that perception of life is a challenge and the artist’s job is to reflect that encounter.
A well-known New York Times art critic rode her bicycle up to the tiny storefront gallery on a drug-infested street made famous for writer’s Jack Kerouac’s “Subterraneans” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” She took some notes and a photograph of the work and a review of the galleries in the East Village appeared in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. All hell broke loose after that story ran. Stretch limos started showing up with the occupants snapping up artwork that would end up in the collections of some of the most prestigious museums in the world.
Having the balls to create a business in a slum with a “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” attitude was fueled with cash, drugs, sex and expanding egos that swam in the waters of a city that said if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. Sex in theatres, parks and the abandoned piers of New York City. Cocaine was popular and in abundance and showed up everywhere. Deals were celebrated with grams upon grams. Silent heroin use was reaching all income levels and would ultimately destroy many talented lives including friends and artists.
This period of the 1980s was a blockbuster decade for creative talent and the reinventing of a city after decades of neglect. Mountains of garbage and sealed up tenements in a neighborhood with its abandoned burnt out cars and trash resembled war-torn Beirut rather than part of the largest city in the United States. Across the street from the gallery was a building called “The Rock”, headquarters of a 4 million dollar a year cocaine-selling operation. The lines of buyers would stretch around the building and down the street.
This was the setting for a friendship between two men that would grow a business and impact art careers and burn brightly until drug addiction would leave a landscape of lives lived in the hard style of a no-holds-barred existence and would evaporate in the path of a virus that had biblical proportions.
Stockholm, Zurich, and London became backdrops for glamorous cocktail parties and furtive street-level drug buys in parks. Dean’s heroin addiction was growing. He was sinking further and deeper into a rabbit hole of loss eventually ending up on the street in a broken down van and begging on street corners.
Taking speeding trains from the Watch a Woman Have Sex with a Monkey brothel in Amsterdam to the Avant Guard galleries and bars in Cologne. Crashing at the home of an eccentric and controversial film director in Berlin and trekking into communist East Germany for a visit to a World War 2 bombed out art museum.
A drug intervention that started at downtown A-list nightclub AREA that culminated in an intense coming out story with an empathic mother and a father that would say “I’m going to take this gay out of you”.
A failed sobriety that would take one art dealer on the road to his death and the other questioning the high risks of success.
From the piss filled bathtubs of the infamous Mineshaft to the spectacular Pallidum and Saint Nightclubs to penthouse parties of the Upper East Side, this was love, lies and a profound life-changing journey that took a wild out of control ride into history.
Copyright 2016 All rights reserved Alan Barrows WGA #1855035
Photo by Andreas Sterzing 1984
Civilian Warfare Gallery opening for David Wojnarowicz one-man show. 1984
Left to Right David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Gary Indiana, Alan Barrows his back to the camera On the far right is Mark Simpson with long hair and standing next to him in a white t-shirt is Keith Davis. The sign for Civilian was a painting that David did of Peter Hujar sleeping, it is slightly visible in the top portion of this photo.
This is the poster invitation the gallery did for the David Wojnarowicz show. The photo is by Marion Scemama taken in David’s studio on the Bowery. David is surrounded by the plaster heads used for the Metamorphosis Series 1984 displayed in the exhibition.