Trending: We Love the 70s. But Why?

By David Schonauer   Tuesday March 1, 2016

The late 1970s and early 1980s were bleak times in New York City.

And yet, as the New York Times T magazine  noted last year, we can’t stop talking about that period.

“Recently there’s been, in TV and film and certainly in books, an intense yearning for a specific five-year period in New York City, those years between the blackout in 1977, and 1982, when AIDS was finally named by the Centers for Disease Control,” wrote Edmund White in the magazine’s September 10, 2015 issue.

The fervor for those years has not dimmed in the meantime, as books, TV shows and art exhibitions focusing on the period continue to pour forth. As you'll see in today's AI-AP Profile, the fondness for the New York of the past is one reason for sudden stardom of photographer Arlene Gottfried, who has been wandering the city's streets for decades.

Another example of the current obsession with the period was the Paul Kasmin Gallery's  recent exhibition of work by Peter Hujar, who the Times called  ; “the most exacting photographer in downtown ’70s New York.” The show included some of Hujar’s most memorable images, including black-and-white portraits of downtown bohemian New York denizens like Susan Sontag, William Burroughs, Fran Lebowitz, Andy Warhol, John Waters, and Hujar’s lover, photographer David Wojnarowicz (whose work will be featured in an upcoming show  at the Whitney museum.)

“Peter’s work really is about an era in New York City life that’s vanished, and I thought it would be interesting to underline that,” said Stephen Koch, director of Hujar’s archive and a curator of the show. Koch also gave the exhibition its title, “Lost Downtown.”

                Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, by Peter Hujar

                    John Waters by Peter Hujar

The Hyperallergic  blog noted that the exhibition will only add to the nostalgia for the “for the crime-ridden, scummy, and cheap New York City of the 1970s.” The blog notes that Hujar’s “mythologizing portraits” of his famous friends “are reminders of why we keep hearing about them. Captured in almost tenebrist light, Hujar’s subjects seem to glow from within.”

Meanwhile, photographer Marcia Resnick’s book Punks, Poets & Provocateurs: NYC Bad Boys, which came out late last year, has been winning plaudits.

                              John Belushi by Marcia Resnick

                              &n bsp;&nb sp;                               &nbs p;                          Joey Ramone, by Marcia Resnick

“If you hung out in New York City's music, art and alt-lit scenes during the late Seventies and early Eighties, you were likely to run into older Beat Generation icons trading secrets with downtown gallery newbies; gonzo celebrity comedians catching live shows with punk wastoids; New Wave singers mixing with Factory staples and trash-flick auteurs,” noted Rolling Stone  in a review. “For photographer Marcia Resnick, these creatures of the night-life were her people, and luckily for us, she always had a few rolls of film handy.”

Resnick’s large-format images of the era have also been featured in an exhibition at Howl! Arts  in New York, which earlier this year staged a show celebrating the 40th anniversary of Punk magazine. And in April, noted Hyperallergic recently, the Queens Museum will host the exhibition “Hey Ho, Let’s Go: The Ramones and the Birth of Punk.”

“Punk,” noted the blog, “is in the air.”

But why? The obsession with the era has to be viewed with an eye toward New York in its current state, a place, notes Hyperallergic, that is comparatively “comparatively safe, sleek, and expensive.”

The late ’70s, wrote White last year, “was the last period in American culture when the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow still pertained, when writers and painters and theater people still wanted to be (or were willing to be) ‘martyrs to art.’” Our modern nostalgia for that time, he added, expresses “a craving for the city that, while at its worst, was also more democratic: a place and a time in which, rich or poor, you were stuck together in the misery (and the freedom) of the place.”
Susan Sontag (left) and Fran Leibovitz by Peter Hujar


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