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Gritty History of the Bowery on Display in New Museum Exhibit 'Come Closer'

By Serena Solomon | September 18, 2012 7:26am

LOWER EAST SIDE — The New Museum is keeping it local with its latest exhibition showcasing the artists' community that called the Bowery home during a gritty yet vibrant time for the infamous thoroughfare.

"Come Closer," which opens Wednesday and runs through January, invites musuem-goers to take a deeper look at how artists were shaped by the notorious stretch when it was a haven for the city's homeless and down-and-out in the, 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Not only will the exhibit feature 40 works from 20 Bowery artists living in a time of cheap rent, flophouses and drunks, “Come Closer” also aims to document an era that is fast becoming ancient history.

"The Bowery was spoken about as a no-man’s-land, a thoroughfare of how people got to the Manhattan Bridge or to the Williamsburg Bridge," said the show's curator, Ethan Swan, who is also responsible for educational development at the museum, located at 235 Bowery.

"It was not a place that people thought of staying in much."

That was true for many, except the intrepid artists who set up studios in inexpensive lofts that often didn't meet code and dotted the city's Skid Row.

While the artists initially left the Bowery’s ramshackle atmosphere out of their work, this began to shift around 1969, according to Swan.

"That is when the artists started to really invite the Bowery into their studios," he explained.

One artist who fell in love with the Bowery is Curt Hoppe, a painter and photographer included in "Come Closer."

"If you have to run from the subway to your apartment, that is when you know you are in a good neighborhood," said Hoppe, who still lives and works in his studio at 98 Bowery, a building that housed many of the era’s well-known artists.

“It has been just a very cool building… there is something special about this building, but I don’t know what it is," added the artist, who recently got a "98" tattoo with a digit on each wrist.

The piece he is contributing to "Come Closer" is a collaborative effort with fellow 98 Bowery artists Marc Miller and Bettie Ringma.

The work is essentially a painting of a photo taken by Hoppe, after he placed Ringma with the four members of The Ramones as the band played one of its many gigs at CBGB, the legendary former music hub farther north on the Bowery.

"It made her seem more important then she was," said Hoppe, who used the series to determine if the photos and paintings could turn Ringma in to a minor celebrity.

The Ramones later signed the painting, bolstering Ringma's pseudo-celebrity status.

Hoppe also took images of Ringma with other well-known personalities from the time, such as pornographer Al Goldstein and U.S Senator George McGovern.

While many artists have moved away from the Bowery, Hoppe is staying put, despite the neighborhood becoming increasingly popular and developer-friendly.

"They are stylizing the Bowery. They are using it to package it as the 'gritty this and that,'" said Hoppe.

He noted the familiar cycle of artists making a derelict area chic and cool, before being displaced by higher rents and those in search of a trendy scene. 

In the "Come Closer" exhibition, Swan also included works by another Bowery artist, Charles Simonds, who inspired the title of the exhibition. From 1970 to 1977, Simonds installed about 300 clay sculptures of miniature prehistoric structures throughout the neighborhood.

"He was adamant throughout that time he would not give up the locations of where they were," said Swan. In other words, those who wanted to see the unsanctioned public art would have to "come closer" and get more acquainted with the Bowery to find the hidden art.

"The metaphor of the work is very clear," Swan said. "These are tiny, tough places for survival in between the greater crumbling city."

"Come Closer" opens Wednesday, Sept. 19, and runs through Jan. 6, 2013.