New York in the 70’s: A Tale of Two Cities

I have become fascinated with New York in the 70’s. I was born in Wisconsin in 1975, giving me zero personal connection to the time or place. What intrigues me is how unimaginably different New York was then from what it is now.

I didn’t first visit New York until 2003 when I took a job in Connecticut. Over the past 20-plus years, I’ve been a dozen times at least. I love it! I heart New York. In doses. I don’t think I could live there – although when I talk big, I think I can – but it’s the best 4-day weekend city in America.

Today it’s a safe, well-lit, tourist wonderland of museums, shows, shopping, and restaurants. An urban Disneyland.

New York in the 70’s – Fear City – couldn’t have been any different. It was legitimately dangerous.

This extraordinary dichotomy, what New York is now and what it was then, and how both evolved, and how one killed the other, boggle my mind.

As an arts writer, I’m also fascinated by the characters inhabiting New York in the 70’s, the most interesting of whom were found in the creative sector.

New York artists 1970s

New York’s art scene in the 1970s.

Louise Bourgeois, Dan Flavin, Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Robert Mapplethorpe, Brice Marden, Claes Oldenberg, Yoko Ono, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, Hannah Wilke.

Andy Warhol.

For starters.

Then there were the musicians.

Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, the punks, the rockers.

David Bowie.

Household names a half century later.

Occupying the center of this artistic universe was Norman E. Fisher. Him you haven’t heard of. Neither had I.

Fisher (1938-1977) has been compared to Gertrude Stein who famously brought together visual artists, poets, and writers through the early 20th century in her Paris apartment. In the same way, Fisher’s living room on West Twelfth Street in Manhattan became a gathering place–a salon–known as “Norman’s,” connecting creatives of all genres.

As Mario Amaya, director of the New York Cultural Center at the time, remembers, “there was nowhere else in the mid-70s where on one afternoon you might meet David Bowie, Jack Nicholson, Philip Glass, or Patti Smith; or you saw Elton John’s limousine parked outside Fisher’s building, and Liza Minnelli sitting inside together with the Warhol crowd.”

Fisher was a social phenomenon–almost a work of art himself, some have said–in his instinctive understanding of the creative spirit of the time, and the genuine passion he dedicated to supporting the artists around him.

Over the course of his few years in New York–cancer would take his life at 39–Fisher would amass an enormous collection of artwork and ephemera from the now iconic individuals passing through his orbit. These items serve as the foundation for “A Walk on the Wild Side: ‘70s New York in the Norman E. Fisher Collection at MOCA Jacksonville,” a 2024 exhibition exploring the dynamic culture of the time and a decade of collaboration and innovation between artists working in a variety of genres.

That’s how I first came to Norman Fisher’s New York in the ‘70s. I live outside Jacksonville and saw the show.

The title comes from the famous Lou Reed song which demonstrates the close connections these artists formed. Reed’s “Transformer” album on which “Walk on the Wild Side” appears was produced by Bowie. The catchy, pop ditty recalls Reed’s time hanging out in Warhol’s Factory and the people he met there. Reed had been a member of the Velvet Underground, the experimental rock band Warhol championed. Bowie was a huge fan of the Velvets and Warhol.

David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and New York in 70s documentary preview

New York art scene 1970s

“(New York in the) 1970s were a time of radical creative experimentation across the literary, visual and performing arts. Artists, creative thinkers, they all collided together in New York and created magic,” MOCA Jacksonville Director Caitlín Doherty said at a public opening reception for “A Walk on the Wild Side” held January 18, 2024. “They broke down boundaries and reimagined what art might be.”

New York’s art scene in scene in the 1970s circled around Fisher who collected, supported, and befriended the artists.

“Norman collected art, but much in the way Andy Warhol did, Norman also collected artists, and I was lucky enough to be among them,” actor and singer Cherry Vanilla shared via a letter read at the exhibition opening.

Vanilla also typifies the artistic connections of the era. She starred in Warhol’s 1971 stage play “Pork.” It was unlike anything seen before. Bowie loved it, seeing in it the artistic freedom that would birth his Ziggy Stardust persona. Cherry Vanilla would go on to be Bowie’s publicist.

“While hanging out at Norman’s notorious Manhattan salon along with an array of both starving and accomplished artists, often including William Burroughs, Philip Glass, Patti Smith, Richard Serra, Dickey Landry and more, it wouldn’t be unusual to be seated on the sofa between the latest ‘Vogue’ supermodel and some totally S&M attired creature, conversing from behind his full black leather mask, metal spike harness, and nipple piercing,” Vanilla added. “It was the 70s hippest and most exclusive collection of New York A-list undergrounders, gathering almost daily at Norman’s busy, buzzy penthouse high above Abingdon Square in Greenwich Village.”

New York’s artistic landscape during the 1970s was highlighted by radical creative experimentation across multiple genres. It was a time when artists broke down the barriers separating art forms and collaborated in newfound ways. They questioned the basic tenets of their different mediums, whether painting, sculpture, dance, music, film, or poetry, leading them to groundbreaking collaborations.

“These artists are really working in ways we might be familiar with now, but then it was brand new, and a big part of that was … multidisciplinary collaboration,” Jessamyn Fiore, co-director of the Estate of Gordon-Matta Clark (more on him later), an expert on the era, and a special invited guest of MOCA Jacksonville, said at the “Walk on the Wild Side” opening. “Performance became a really big part of it; you had visual artists working with dancers, working with musicians, working with filmmakers, and when you look at the broad scope of art history, it’s so often that these different disciplines exist in their own camps, and there might be one or two crossovers, but this moment, there was so much cross-collaboration. Then you see that Norman was one of these people right in the middle of all of that, inviting everybody in, interested in everyone be it music, fashion, visual art, everybody.”

Up until this point, “art” was thought of as something hung on a wall or observed in a museum; static, separate from the artist.

Artists were working together in unique ways and reconsidering what their role in society was. Remember, these were the years immediately following the 1960s, the hippies, Woodstock, the Summer of Love, the Black Power Movement, feminism, peak Vietnam, Watergate. America was upside down in a way it hadn’t been since the Civil War.

“It was a moment of pushback against Modernism and Post-modernism, to a certain degree Minimalism–art for art’s sake–and wanting to make work that had an actual impact,” Fiore said. “It has political implications, it has implications on community, beginning to question what is our role as artists, what is that worth if we’re not changing the world for the better in some way? If you look at a lot of those questions the artists were asking and their initial experiments, you see the seeds of a lot of contemporary artists’ work today.”

RELATED: New York’s downtown art scene in 1980s.

70s in New York

42nd Street in Times Square transformation documentary preview.

It’s easy understanding how New York in the 70s becomes romanticized when considered through an artistic lens.

As Fiore commented, “you look at this list of names, and you (wonder) how were all of these people in the same place at the same time and doing things together. It’s very exciting.”

At the same time, she also reminds, “the New York City of then would be unrecognizable to anyone who’s there today. It was in dire straits, and if you look at the images of it, at certain places downtown, it almost looks like a war zone.”

There was rubble on the streets. Buildings falling down, burned out, abandoned, condemned, occupied by squatters.

New York was considered “Fear City” in 1975 with pamphlets handed out at the airports discouraging visitors from going downtown. Think about that!

The city was one day away from bankruptcy in 1975. No federal bailout was coming, inspiring the famous New York Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”

Times Square was full of peep shows, XXX bookstores and live sex acts.

Organized crime was flourishing. In 1978, the so-called Lufthansa Heist took place at JFK Airport inspiring a scene in the movie “Goodfellas.”

David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, terrorized the city from July 1976 through July 1977.

Heroin, pickpockets, a serial killer stalking Times Square.

“Midnight Cowboy.”

Every negative stereotype that exists today about big cities being dirty, dangerous, and unlivable emanates from New York in the 1970s. Today’s safe, well-lit, touristy New York wonderland would have been unthinkable then.

New York in the 70s was more than funky art happenings and concerts at CBGB’s.

It was post-apocalyptic. No one else wanted to be there, so the artists took over. Those attracted to it, those who could survive, were tested by fire. They found community in the other oddballs similarly drawn there.

New York Real Estate 1970s

Gordon Matta-Clark installing ‘Walls Paper,’ at 112 Greene Street, 1972.
Gordon Matta-Clark installing ‘Walls Paper,’ at 112 Greene Street, 1972. © COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF GORDON MATTA-CLARK AND DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK.

Essential to fostering and understanding the era was real estate. As industry and manufacturing left Manhattan, huge spaces opened up. Cheap. Near to each other.

“With these big empty spaces, artists started moving in because they were fantastic for showing, for working, for living, and at the same time, there was this move with the art itself that became incredibly experimental,” Fiore explained. “The artists were creating and making works that were more site specific, ephemeral, performative, and nobody had figured out how to monetize that yet. That allowed this freedom to happen, and genuine experimentation, and because of that, it becomes a very idealistic moment for a lot of people.”

Once such performance/exhibition space and workshop was 112 Greene Street in what would later be known as SOHO. At the time it was a derelict industrial area.

For the artists, it provided an affordable place to live and work, and an arena in which to stage their artwork and performances. 112 Greene Street, in a building owned by artist Jeffrey Lew and his wife, Rachel Wood, became a space where artists had the freedom to push boundaries and take risks, most famously by Gordon Matta-Clark and Alan Saret, who were instrumental in defining it as a space with a social context.

112 Greene Street set a prototype for the slew of alternative spaces that were created by artists during this time as outlets for their art and collective energy.

“It was very experimental, off the cuff, but then it also became this melting pot for all the different disciplines. There were musicians and there were dancers, and so you would have situations where an artist would create a work and then that would get activated by a dance company,” Fiore said. “It had a sort of anarchic sense to it. An amazing space for collaboration. A ton of artists went through it, but it was almost because it wasn’t very well organized it allowed this moment of freewheeling creation and that is very reflective of what was happening at the time in all kinds of different ways.”

Temporary, experimental, pop-up art spaces are commonplace today. That began in New York in the ’70s.

New York Graffiti Becomes Art in 1970s

Gordon Matta-Clark, 'Tag Wall,' (1972)
Gordon Matta-Clark, ‘Tag Wall,’ (1972). Photo courtesy of the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark.

In the summer of 1972, the then 29-year-old Matta-Clark began to photograph the city’s exploding graffiti movement. As a lifelong downtown New Yorker, he had seen the city before graffiti, something that was not the case for the many artists who as young adults flocked to New York in the early 1970s.

By the late 1960s, the graffiti scene in New York City had remained relatively unchanged for centuries. However, in the mid-1970s, a remarkable transformation occurred as teenagers turned ordinary graffiti into a burgeoning art form. This rapid evolution marked one of the swiftest developments in the realm of art movements.

Matta-Clark may have been the only artist at the time who had an artistic aim rather than an aim to document the movement. His lens was that of an artist, not of a scholar. He felt it was a people’s art revolution that took back the city and beautified it on the participants’ own terms. 

SNAKE 1, SJK 171, LEE 173rd, WICKED GARY, TRACY 168, and STAY HIGH 149 were among the taggers.

The graffiti that Matta-Clark found was fresh and full of adolescent fun and creativity and incorporated many of the early standard hallmarks of graffiti today: 3D, characters, arrows, and connections between the letters.

Matta Clark captured over 2,000 images of New York City graffiti between 1972 and 1973.

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