A new ‘Art & Music Exhibition’ re-creates the bohemian rhapsodies that cross-pollinated in downtown Manhattan and shaped everything from the Beats to the punks, all of it seeming to be six degrees of separation from the Velvets
I am sure that in the hearts of the curators of “The Velvet Underground Experience” exhibit, they hoped some time-warped version of hanging out at Andy Warhol’s Factory might occur at the Tuesday night pre-opening party. And as you walked in the front door, the silver mylar strips hanging around, a dark atmosphere punctuated by splashes of film strips, colored lights, and camera flashes, and a steady stream of fabulously bent and beautiful people, did offer an instant facsimile.
Head a bit to your left – of course, since this show is nothing if not a representation of the development of the darker corners of the leftist cultural movement at the end of the midcentury – the standard gallery exhibit purpose statement greets you: “Welcome to America.” So does a beautiful, silver metal plate with a timeline of the band running down it.
First, you’re led through the crumbling state of postwar lower Manhattan from which the Beat Generation and early folk scenes arose, delineated most effectively by a wall of Fred W. McDarrah’s incredible photos from his time as a photographer at the Village Voice. (There is a great show of that work at Steven Kasher Gallery right now, which would make a nice addendum to this exhibit).
Tons of cool images of the usual suspects (Allen Ginsberg, Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Pop artists, go-go girls, protesters) float between the urban decay porn that run through our minds when imaging VU founders Lou Reed and John Cale meeting up to cop and talk about when next to practice.
A film delineating the differences between Reed and Cale’s opposite upbringings was lovingly designed and effective. Many other descriptions and histories can be had by plugging in house headphones along the way, or downloading an app and listening on your own phone.
And so within the first full wall of this fairly huge, three-floor space, you quickly get that this is more of an “experiential” exhibit, rather than a collector geek’s endless pile of original ephemera. There is a LOT of that – a cover of the debut album signed by the whole band and Warhol, all the beyond-rare original 7” singles, cool old VU-related magazine articles, art/poem zines of the era, and much more. There are more pictures of mind-blowing old stuff than, well, the actual stuff, but it awaits you in surprising and accessible ways, especially on a night like tonight, with so many people crowding around the pieces to peek.
I also really appreciated the inclusion of the many seemingly tangential but incredibly important individuals who made the Velvet Underground (not unlike this exhibit) a kind of embodiment of various East Coast art movements and underground characters. The focus on Angus MacLise – an itinerant and quintessential mid-60s underground mind-bender – worked at proving the Velvets would not have existed without him.
Also nice was ambling up upon the massively appreciated box of Jonas Mekas ephemera, only to see the legendary underground film maven standing right there. After pointing out that an image of one of those tangential VU characters might not actually be that character, Jonas admitted, “Those who put this show together really, really, really love the Velvet Underground.”
“I really like the context,” said longtime rock critic-at-large, Anthony DeCurtis, author of a recent Lou Reed biography. “Yeah, there isn’t an overabundance lot of original ‘stuff,’ but it’s all really exciting, nonetheless.”
As you round about some more, you come across the central design element of the show, a large, wooden-plank cobbled house, with silver lamé padding all over the ground to lie on and look up at the impressive collection of short vintage films featuring the Velvets. There are about six or seven 15-minute films in it, so I will have to wait for some random Tuesday afternoon to come back to the show and really take all that in…
Each band member gets a separate shrine, with a large sort of book hanging off, filled with info and incredible photos (most of which this longtime VU fanatic had never seen). They are a little awkward to look through, especially if someone is breathing over your shoulder, and one wonders what they’re going to look like after a few hundred underground rock weirdos have pawed over them. But it was an interesting way to present the histories of each member, a sort of 2018 gallery mimic of all the midcentury periodicals that appear through the rest of the exhibit.
Make sure not to saunter past the back room devoted to Nico. It is a quiet, somber, and gorgeous presentation of the infamous chanteuse. The tucked-back-ness of it ultimately made sense, mirroring the way she was often seen as a figure forced onto the band, but who arose through it all as an increasingly central art figure of that era.
“Yeah, but where’re my pictures?!” laughed downtown photographic historian, Marcia Resnick. “Well, I was more about the lineage of all this. I took pictures of that stuff.” That was a large wall of images of the endless array of bands, films, advertising, and whatnot that the Velvet Underground and their milieu influenced for the rest of the 20th century. Well-lit and eye-popping, it ends the show in a conclusive manner. As does the wall right next to it that features the book covers of all the worldwide editions of the classic post-Velvets punk rock bible (and our site’s launching pad), Please Kill Me. And sure enough, there was author Legs McNeil, ever-present NYC scene photographer, Bob Gruen, and mondo manager, Danny Fields.
When chatting with Danny, we mainly remarked on how he was about to take the brand new edition of the book on the road to Poland for some promotional work. This led to looking at the Polish cover, and gushing over how gorgeous Richard Hall and Johnny Thunders are in the old Heartbreakers photo.
Victor Bockris, who wrote his own book on the Velvet Underground from 1983, Up-Tight, said, “Not only is there so much wonderful stuff to look at here, but there are so many wonderful people to talk to and look at, such a fantastic collection of people.”
I will admit that the hubbub of the night added to the show’s impact. Free drinks didn’t hurt. But one could still conceive that, were you to come on that quieter Tuesday afternoon, this exhibit ultimately exists as a kind of cathedral, or at least chapel, to the Velvet Underground, a reverent bow to a band – and their band of irreverent outsiders – who essentially created what American “cool” would be from then on out.
Or as Bob Gruen surmised on the way out, “I think it is really wonderful that a new generation gets to learn all about this!”
“The Velvet Underground Experience Art and Music Exhibition,” on view through Dec. 30, is at 178 Broadway, New York, NY