Club 57, Late-Night Home of Basquiat and Haring, Gets a Museum-Worthy Revival

“At any given time, the club was a dance hall, a screening room, a watering hole, a theater lab, an art gallery, or a self-styled ‘let it all hang out’ encounter group,” Ann Magnuson writes in MoMA’s “Club 57” exhibition catalog. “Sometimes it was all those things at once.”

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“I really feel for artists starting out today,” Mr. Scharf said, standing in front of a mural he painted on Norfolk Street. “When I got to New York in 1978 you could work a couple of nights a week to pay your bills, and the rest of the time you were free. That’s how cheap it was.” Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

That interdisciplinary spirit had painters making music, musicians making sculptures, sculptors acting in plays, and actors tossing their scripts in favor of improvised performances, or as Keith Haring called the evenings he organized, “Acts of Live Art.” Case in point: Min Thometz, a freshly arrived graduate of a high school in Minnesota, who began bartending at Club 57 — when she wasn’t also stepping out mid-shift to act in a play or perform in Pulsallama, an all-female 13-member percussion ensemble.

“We were all about being very silly at Club 57,” she said in a recent phone interview, which made for a purposely stark contrast with the similarly artist-heavy crowd at TriBeCa’s Mudd Club, “which was more about fashion, about being ‘cool.’ We were about wearing costumes and having theme parties.” Indeed, her own “Bongo Voodoo” party ended with dead chickens being flung around, a raging bonfire in the middle of the club’s floor, and her future husband Oliver Sanchez passing out on her turntables as she was D.J.-ing, a novel twist on a meet-cute story.

Yet indoor fires and flying poultry were the least of the worries for a club that never had a liquor license. Letters from Mr. Strychacki’s archives show the Holy Cross parish’s bishop, John Jakubik, tirelessly intervening on Club 57’s behalf with a string of judges and government agencies. In 1981, when frustrated neighbors finally hired a lawyer to help shut down the club after repeated police summons for noise violations, Bishop Jakubik patiently informed him that “Club 57 is the youth circle of our church … Please try to understand that the East Village is not the best of areas and our parish hall is the only place where our youth can socialize under supervision.”

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“We were all about being very silly at Club 57,” Min Sanchez, one of the regulars, said recently. Credit Alden Projects

Sleep-deprived neighbors on St. Marks Place weren’t the only ones fixating on Club 57. The art world was taking notice as well. New collectors began arriving, pumping money into a previously moribund market. With them came a burst of fresh galleries throughout the East Village — a handful in 1981, over a hundred by 1985. The downtown art world, centered around academia and small government grants, had previously seemed separated by a chasm from free-spending buyers. No longer. As checkbooks opened and media attention skyrocketed, it suddenly looked like artists could have it all.

“I’ll never forget what Jean-Michel said to me one night,” Mr. Sanchez said, recalling a walk home from the club. “‘I’ll learn to draw later. First I want to get famous.’ His work was already good, but he was so astute in his strategy. His plan was to charm his way into the right circles. And it absolutely worked!”

“There was this mad rush to cash in,” Mr. Scharf said. “It stopped being as fun as people became competitive with each other.” He includes himself. “For the 1983 Whitney Biennial, Keith and Jean-Michel were in it, and I wasn’t. Which freaked me out!” Part of his solution was a pre-internet social media campaign: “I started spray painting my Hanna-Barbera post-nuclear-holocaust mutant characters — like Wilma Flintstone with a snake body — all up and down the East Side, from the 59th Street Bridge to the East Village. I had no idea who the curators for the 1985 Whitney Biennial were, but I figured they would at least know my work.”

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