A provocative and entertaining new exhibit at the Museum of Sex in NYC undresses the ‘raw provocation’ that defined the punk era (1971-1985) and planted the seeds for present-day gender deconstruction
The Museum of Sex is kind of like the tipsy single aunt to The Met’s grandmother at the family Christmas party. Sure, we all love granny’s explanation of her classic stuffing recipe, but we’re secretly angling to sit next to that aunt on the couch during the unwrapping of presents so we can whisper gossip.
True, the Museum’s gift shop that faces 5th Ave – filled with dildos, Tom of Finland books, and tons of other naughty accoutrements – pulls ‘em in. But this 16-year old museum has increasingly curated some of the most culturally thought-provoking exhibits of any gallery in town. And for a guy like yours truly who will drop by anything with the word “punk” attached to it, the “Punk Lust” exhibit that just opened last week is one of the best original punk-era ephemera celebrations I’ve ever encountered.
If the soon-closing “Velvet Underground Experience” exhibit in Soho left you a little wanting for more insanely rare original artifacts, this show is for you. But it’s also for anyone interested in the morphing and movements of gender identity through the end of the 20th century and into our era, where that topic is now a predominant factor in our cultural and political discourse.
As context is always key to understanding that discourse (and informing the arguments that often ensue), this show is extremely constructive in exposing the grimy, raw roots of those who originally did the work of gender deconstruction – usually while completely wasted and stumbling out of rent parties and dive bars throughout the end of the 1970s.
Considering the whole thing stands in one room, there is an incredibly impressive amount of mostly previously unexhibited ephemera, costumes, and found film footage that covers a lot of ground – from performance art to Xeroxing, S&M influence to porn, punk to no wave, graphic design to fashion, and more.
If the overall exhibit space framing, featuring police tape, cheap cork board, and chain link fences, is standard “punk” iconography, it totally works to bring the often deeply emotional and/or proudly offensive pieces back full circle into the Museum’s sly, cheeky imperatives. And the soundtrack of classic sex-tinged punk tunes hovering just above is expertly chosen.
This exhibit’s focus on the shifting uses of sexuality in the original punk era brings a fresh, often unexplored angle to the standard “Oh man, what a cool Dead Boys poster” passions.
I met with co-curator of “Punk Lust,” Lissa Rivera, for a talk and walk around the room.
PKM: So how did the show come about?
Lissa Rivera: I’m a staff curator at the museum, and I’d been looking to do a punk-themed show. [British historian] Toby Mott’s collection had come our way, so I thought this would be a good idea. Then Serge Becker and I reached out to Carlo McCormick [Cultural Critic, curator] and Vivien Goldman [Punk Professor at NYU, author] to collaborate because we needed more individuals from the era to work on it. But punk was something I grew up with. My dad considered himself a punk in the ‘70s. He taught me about life based on his record collection.
PKM: Where did you grow up?
Lissa Rivera: We were near Rochester. Yeah, unlike Lydia Lunch, he never got away. I spent my childhood in record stores, so this was great to collaborate on. And I really helped with laying everything out and organizing. And Vivien and Carlo connected to a lot of the additional lenders. They were able to contact people directly from the scene and get a lot of really personal items we wouldn’t have gotten without that one-on-one connection.
PKM: Yeah, I can tell just at first glance that you procured a lot of really interesting items. I go to a lot of vintage punk type events, gallery shows, and whatnot, not to mention general fandom stuff like books and films, etc., and I am already seeing things I have never seen before.
Lissa Rivera: Yeah, we have some very personal items. So there’s this new collective called PunkArchiveNYC (PANYC) which is run by Camilla Saly, and is in association with Tish and Snooky of Manic Panic, and some other people. They are creating an online database that compiles everyone’s personal private collections that they’ve been carrying around since the early ‘70s. So we have very special items from that collective on view her for the first time ever. Like this is Johnny Thunders leather jacket from 1974. I guess the collar was destroyed by Sylvain Sylvain’s dog.
PKM: Man, Johnny was so tiny!
Lissa Rivera: Yeah, we had a hard time finding small enough mannequins. Plus their heads all had these adolescent faces, and you can’t really put a face on Johnny Thunders. Tish and Snooky came and styled these mannequins and did the hair and makeup for them.
Then here’s this handmade New York Dolls t-shirt with safety pins, made by Rita Daniels in 1973. And this was long before the whole British punk use of safety pins, you know.
PKM: I like that about this exhibit. The usual, mainstream history of punk is almost always British-based. And that makes sense as far as the look and imagery of what became thought of as “punk.” Being a Cleveland guy, we like to think the Electric Eels started punk in 1972. But anyway, you do seem to have a wider focus from the get-go.
Lissa Rivera: Yeah, we also worked with Young Kim of the Malcolm McClaren estate, so we have some SEX shop originals. His voice in the punk movement is so important. But yeah, we tried to be very democratic. There are a lot of West Coast photographers who never get featured, like Jenny Lens (L.A.) and Sue Brisk (San Francisco) who lives in New York now. There is some Detroit in there – I have some metal, life-sized cutouts by Sue Rynski, of Niagra and Iggy Pop masturbating. And Tessa Hughes-Freeland, a filmmaker who lives in New York, but is originally from England, she curated the films; plus Pat Ivers’ incredible “Go Nightclubbing” clips. Tessa’s from the no wave “Cinema of Transgression” era. There is a lot of pride in whatever geographic scene each person came from, but my love for the scene is in the whole, and the idea of punk being a tool for freedom of expression universally. I thought it was great having all these diverse factions promoting and having their area promoted, but we were able to fit in everyone in the end.
PKM: And obviously, this being the Museum of Sex, the preeminent theme here is the way the original punk movement played around with gender roles and norms. Because when I started seeing shows more frequently growing up in the late ‘80s, hardcore had really kicked in, and punk was quickly seen as very manly and macho, dudes in violent mosh pits, etc. Though right when I first started going to shows, there was a very diverse cross-section of people actually. And I always felt the funny and inspiring gender juggling of punk has been kind of forgotten.
Lissa Rivera: Yeah, that was my initial perception as well, very masculine. But when you start to dig into it and look into the trajectory that this show takes, like with the Velvet Underground; and how Jayne County hung out with the Andy Warhol crowd, and she was really connected to the “Theater of the Ridiculous,” and roommates with Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis. Then Wayne County and the Electric Chairs were the resident band at the Mudd Cub. And of course, the Velvet Underground were very influential with bringing these sexual themes in, like with “Venus in Furs,” and then into Lou’s early solo work, the Transformeralbum, and you can just start there.
PKM: Yeah, and when you look back at articles about the Velvets from their time, it is jarring how much a lot of the press would mention that “The drummer is a girl, but looks like a little boy.” I remember when I first started getting into the Velvets as a teen thinking, what does that even mean? It made me think about the context of their times, and how things that seem somewhat innocuous now were seemingly worth mentioning then – how these changes of perception and acceptance were subtle and took time. Still taking time, I guess.
Lissa Rivera: Yeah, like reading up more on the British side, a lot of the punks were from middle class backgrounds and went to art school – art school was more publicly funded in the UK in the ‘70s. And a lot of future punk musicians went to those schools, and were hearing David Bowie and T Rex, etc. We do go into how they were playing with gender and androgyny as this basic freedom. We have this section, “Deconstructing Gender,” which goes into more of the queer punk movement – the Slits, the Raincoats, Nina Hagen, and even Debbie Harry with her lyrics. And that still doesn’t get highlighted as much – looking at the ways that women were deconstructing gender roles as well.
PKM: And while walking through this exhibit, it’s reminding me that, musically, punk was ostensibly about breaking from the past, creating new sounds, coming out of this bloated, stodgy, early ‘70s period of stadium rock and boring leftover folk music, like “fuck the hippies” and all that. But socially, the punk and new wave era actually did remain on a through-line with the whole sexual revolution that started in the mid-60s. Even if, as you say in the exhibit introduction, that “Punk sex was not an invitation or come-on so much as an aggression.”
Lissa Rivera: I think there was a sense of personal expression. Like another thing we look at is sex work. Playing in a lot of these bands early on, they didn’t make money, a lot of what they were doing was never going to be signed on to major record labels. So there was a supplementation through sex work that some were open about, and others were not. Like Dee Dee Ramone with “53rd & 3rd.” And Poison Ivy was open about how when the Cramps were starting out in NYC, she would supplement their income as a dominatrix. And then there’s Sylvia Morales (Reed) and Anya Phillips.
PKM: Did you get to interview any of the musicians for this show?
Lissa Rivera: We did. We’re working on a soundtrack for the gallery show, so we’ve been contacting some bands. Even though we have music playing, we’re still working on the finished soundtrack.
Oh, there’s that great poster of Suzi Quattro. I think when I was watching her on Happy Days when you’re like 13 or 14, and identifying with Fonzie, you can’t forget about that. And here’s a great Bob Gruen shot of David Johansen (New York Dolls).
PKM: That’s when they were in L.A. the first time, I think.
Lissa Rivera: Yeah, and he’s sprawled on that car, and those high heels – Bob told us those shoes were meant for nuns. And this picture of Marc Bolan was taken by Ringo Starr.
PKM: Did you get any interesting stories from people about finding stuff for this exhibit, like, “Oh man, I just found this in a storage space last month…”
Lissa Rivera: I wouldn’t say I heard any new, surprising stories of finding this stuff. There is already so much legend around this movement that’s already out there floating around. The show is more about how sex and ideas of sex weaved through it all.
Oh, this is definitely a favorite artifact of the show – it’s a letter from Sable Starr. She’s mentioning someone named “Richard,” and it does line up with the time she was seeing Richard Hell. And she talks about needing to strip to make more money for poor Richard who’s in debt. And she talks about making $350 dancing, and all she had to show for it is an Egyptian hippie necklace. It’s got her lipstick kiss on it, in a neat pink blush, which I think is so sweet.
PKM: The story on the placard about how and where this letter was found is pretty incredible.
Lissa Rivera: Yeah, I mean I love all this stuff. I could go on about everything. Like these amazing photos from Sue Brisk that have never been exhibited. You see these passed out punks sprawled around a small apartment living room…
PKM: They kind of all look as if post-coitus, but they’re still fully clothed.
Lissa Rivera: Ha, yeah, they probably all OD’d on something or other. But this is punk sex. From people I talked to getting this all together, I mean, of course some people had sex, but a lot of people didn’t because drugs were often more pleasurable than sex at that time. There was a lot of dressing up in full fetish gear, but it didn’t mean they were exactly proposing some sexual interaction. It was more a form of expression and transgression.
[No joke, “Too Drunk to Fuck” by the Dead Kennedys was playing in the background while we were discussing this.]
PKM: Oh, you know, that Transformer album back cover? I’ve always heard that the man and woman were the same person.
Lissa Rivera: Wow, I’ve never heard that! That would be amazing. You know, we attempted to stuff the jeans on the Johnny Thunders mannequin. It was so funny, we were going about it so professionally, with professional art handlers attempting to wrap things with archival tissue. But nothing was as good as that Transformer picture!
PKM: Geez, working at the Museum of Sex must be a great job!