Spotlight: CLUB 57: FLYERS 1979-83

By Todd Alden

When the Club 57 scene is memorialized, it is frequently remembered for having been a downtown hangout and venue for visual, performance, and musical artists including Keith Haring, Madonna, The B-52s, Kenny Scharf, Klaus Nomi, John Sex, Joey Arias, Scott Wittman, Scott Shaiman, and at the beginning, Jean-Michel Basquiat. But other participants also contributed to an earnestly experimental environment that feels very distant from what is possible in New York today. Many of Club 57’s members died early and of AIDS.

Club 57: Flyers 1979-83 consists of photocopies of an archive of photocopied flyers that were created by a variety of artists mostly to announce their own events at the club. Collected together, they unfold an impressionistic record of the ephemeral history of Club 57, a members only club inhabited by youthful, free-wheeling artists who were somehow granted access to the basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church at 57 St. Mark’s Place.“Part basement den, part art gallery, part Dada cabaret, Club 57 began as an ephemeral, anything-goes environment where artists and performers had carte blanche to test-drive their wildest dreams,” to borrow writer Rachel Wolff’s description.

There was little money involved with Club 57, a fortuitously absent constraint permitting the anything-goes programming which could be provocative, outrageous, silly or unapologetically campy. In spite of the club’s numeric name, it was more like the anti-Studio 54. There were exhibitions of non-art, found objects and other group exhibitions of Xeroxes (Keith Haring curated at least two in 1980-81).  In the unexpected context of a church basement, there were musical reviews and plays (including Ann Magnuson and Sam Shepherd). There were frequent screenings of monster flics and “lurid” (pornographic) films. There were dance parties. There was a “Club 57 slide show.” In the spirit of Dada, perhaps, there was a “Non-writers poetry reading.” There were evenings of “psychedelic punk.” Music was not the main draw, but The Fleshtones played at Club 57, and so did The Cramps as well as David Wojnorowicz’ band, 3 Teens Kill 4 (see the March, 1981 calendar).

To a certain extent, Club 57 was a stepchild of Warhol’s legacy and camp. The flyers in this book register appearances by Warhol Superstars Ondine, Gerard Malanga, Mary Wornarov, and Holly Woodlawn. Another flyer announces a March 27, 1981 performance called “Velvet Mania,” a Velvet Underground tribute (with Ann Magnuson starring as Nico; Magnuson ran the club for much of its existence).  A few other names on these flyers of artists appearing at Club 57 include: Kathy Acker, John Ahearn, Wendy Wild, Bikini Girl (Lisa Baumgartner), James Nares, Beth B. and Scott B., John Lurie, Rhys Chatham, Sam Shepherd, and David McDermott. But other collaborators are also worth remembering, and some are commemorated in Club 57: Flyers 1979-83.

In addition to the Xerox shows, Keith Haring curated a number of other “more conventional” art shows in 1980-82, and this book reproduces two of Haring’s flyers. One reads as follows: “Anonymous Art” (October 29, 1980: 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.)…Keith Haring presents works from his private collection: ‘art’ found on the street; ‘art’ by children; ‘art’ propaganda: raw art by unknown authors at 57.” This particular archive of flyers does include the notice for a Haring-curated project which captures some of the spirit of the club: it is flyer for the “First Annual Club 57 Group Erotic and Pornographic Art Exhibition” (opened February, 27, 1981); the show included such artists as Donald Baechler, Frank Moore, Frank Holliday, David Wojnarowicz, Buster Cleveland, James Brown & David Carrino, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Anonymous, and Kenny Scharf (the poster for Haring’s show, however, was apparently not by the artist, but rather by the artist’s pal, John Sex. Regrettably absent here, Sex’s poster was “available for 2.00 at the bar.” Eventually, the Mudd Club hired away much of Club 57’s early crowd (including Haring, Sex, and Scharf), but the club continued through 1983.

Due to the intimate scale of the club as well as the miniscule amount of money involved, Club 57’s “publicity apparatus”—if we can call it that--- was decentralized, and consisted of artist-produced, photocopied flyers. This distinguishes Club 57’s publicity from the high production, printed-and-mailed ephemera associated of the earlier Studio 54, but also from the more famous, later-era clubs like Area, The Palladium, Danceteria and The Tunnel that were otherwise professionally and coherently designed and printed. In all cases, perhaps, the medium was also the message. Nearly all of the flyers in Club 57: 1979-83, at any rate, were originally posted on walls or distributed by hand.

What is reproduced here just tells part of the lost stories of Club 57.  This archive consists of a collection of flyers that happened to be saved by contributing Club 57 artist, Henry Jones, who assisted Ann Magnuson in scheduling the club’s calendar.  (Several of Club 57’s monthly calendars, designed by Magnuson are also reproduced). Jones, who attended SVA, like Haring, Sex, and Scharf, made a notable stroboscopic film around 1978 about The Fleshtones and was a protégé of the filmmaker and musicologist, Harry Smith.

Not all, but most of the flyers here are unsigned and many were originally photocopied on different colored sheets paper.  A few “originals” included hand-colorings. Some were likely to have been photocopied at Todd’s Copy Shop (283 Mott Street), which allowed artists direct access to its machines and was already thriving by 1979. 

Haring and others promulgated “Xerox art” as an art form at Club 57:  Haring curated at least two different shows on photocopy art (which are not documented here). Around 1980, Xerox art was an emergent medium  allowing artists to make their own street posters and propaganda; as such, it was celebrated not only by Conceptual artists, but also by many of the artists at Club 57 who prized it for its scrappy, do-it-yourself punk aesthetic. Before the subway chalk drawings, Haring made photocopies around this time that he pasted to walls on the street.

To some extent, the original photocopies from Club 57 unquestionably approximate artworks. But of course the equivocal status of the photocopy as non-art---as degraded ephemera, designed to invite the audience to passing performances and to passing pleasures, also contributed to the re-doubled urgency of these messages in a place where life and art traded places, however briefly.  

© Todd Alden 2014