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By Lehman Weichselbaum
Photographer Gary Azon may not have been the most prolific chronicler of the 80s downtown NYC creative scene. But he came threateningly close, showing up nearly every night at this glitzy big window opening or that roughneck boiler room art incursion, often both on the same evening. Most important, in his case quality matched quantity. Whether snapping the stars of the moment, the Warhols, Finleys, Basquiats, Legeres, Ginsbergs, Kostabis (along with his perennial subject and personal companion, the poet Dorothy Friedman-August), or a cherished nobody wandering into the frame, Azon, a recent winner of a posthumous Acker Award, always captured the visual essence of his subject's endemic genius as well as his or her unvarnished humanity. The time, the place and the people live, as nowhere else, in his portfolio.
Artistically, the New York downtown 80s has always resisted easy classification. Some of that may have to do with the collectively anarchic aversion by those who lived the decade to reductive pigeonholing, some with the twin physical distractions of street criminals and moneyed gentrifiers. But between the neo-these and post-those, the big-market brand artists and the scrappy agitpropists, perhaps the singlemost constant was no paramount movement or style, but the shared character trait of raw nerve. The best artists found their groove and stuck with it in the face of every deterrence, some literally to an early grave. His abundant imaginative gifts aside, nerve was what Azon had plenty of.
Political correctness never his strong suit, he compiled a series of pictures on fetishistic themes, part of a planned collection titled "Art Asylum." Like Robert Mapplethorpe, whom he praised in printed critiques, Azon trafficked in a high transgressive drollery, though maybe a notch or two down on the outrageousness scale. No, for example, to flowers growing out of the photographer's butt a la Mapplethorpe, yes to a sex kittenish model manhandling deadly weapons. Or see his portrait of transatlantic dandy-memoirist Quentin Crisp in trademark neo-Brummel regalia abed with leather-geared slum socialite Stephanie Parker, as a promotion for Crisp's guidebook on etiquette, alchemically blending their crazily divergent sexual codes into the coziest couple since Ward and June Cleaver.
Azon was a photojournalist in the literal sense of the word, placing both pictures and text in the New York Times and London Times and many other big international newspapers, as well as magazines as diverse as Semiotext(e), Gentleman's Quarterly and Tiger Beat.
There were wide-angle images of public events. Two noon-at-midnight shots accompany a retrospective Gary Indiana article about the 80s at societyofcongtrol.com, one a street scene outside the Side Gallery, the other an indoor photo of an unidentified performance. Both fixed sculpturally arrayed clusters of human figures in vast, contrasting baths of dead-of-night black and blindingly white light, evoking masters of NYC photography like Abbott and Feininger.
AZON'S EYE Cont...
Most of all, there was the immeasurable series of closeup candids, born of Azon and camera weaving their way through seemingly every opening, performance and reading that ever happened in downtown Manhattan, undeflected by thick velvet rope or thicker bouncer. In his plentiful celebrity shots, Azon consistently, and with measured doses of irony, endeavored to find the exact balance between icon and individual, within an anti-hierarchical counterculture that contrary to its manifestos managed to find stars to venerate. See, for example, his riveting Beauty-and-the Beast coupling of a smiling Friedman-August with glowering beat poet Gregory Corso. Or the fixed prophetlike gaze of downtown's resident holy blasphemer Andres Serrano.
Less formulaic are photos of the moment wedding the purely spontaneous to the irresistibly opportune, like reedy street-art pioneer Keith Haring barely emerging from the whirling background of his own graffiti. Or a gowned gallery owner Gracie Mansion, throwing her coiffed head back in raucous laughter, while a motorcycle cop looks on dotingly.
But the party candids may provide the best measure of Azon's work. Any journeyman fotog or amateur shutterbug can aim a camera (or iPhone) at a crowd in a room and push a button, with the adequate, even eye-pleasing results showing up on the next day's celebrity page or in the family photo album. Here it's where it's most difficult to say where Azon's work in this category differs from anybody else's. There is, of course Azon's instinctive clarity and compositional exactness. Even when the resolution occasionally blurs it reads as a formalistic nod to the evening's (and the epoch's) zipping mutability. There are the glaring, era-specific signifiers, the ultra-simple and strategically layered fashions, the semaphoric hairstyles. Above all, hewing to the decade's prevailing esthetic, in an unconditional surrender to chance, there is Azon's absolute trust in letting it all happen, before the fortuitously open lens of the camera. With the requisite technical skills in place, the art is all in that trust.
So you have the Magnusons, the Eichelbergers, the Meads, the Pietris, the Kupferbergs, the Levs, the Dames, grinning, mugging or deadpanning, putting on their most practiced picture faces or caught unawares (sometimes impossible to tell one from the other), frequently not looking at all like their "public" selves, at times weirdly, engrossingly so. Yet at the same time they remain recognizable, paradoxically, perhaps, even more so than before, as the big shots that they are, thanks to this fresh injection of the precious human element into our fixed images of them that's at once distorting and corrective, simply because Azon lets it all in. Nowhere else is this seen more instructively than in Azon's own plentiful "ecco homo" self-shots, after the party's over, with the photographer's square, solid face turning its slack, frank-eyed expression toward the camera, the artist's barest and best canvas evoking Van Gogh's self-portraits in paint.
AZON'S EYE Cont...
From the completely opposite side of the icon-individual axis, utterly impossible to ignore is Azon's breathtaking picture of a thin, frighteningly bent African-American man propped in his wheelchair somewhere on a Loisaida broken sidewalk, possibly mere yards from some slum-glammy artists' party down the street. Though hardly the ideologue, Azon understood exquisitely the explosive Reagan-Giuliani era political rifts that defined the Lower East Side, as well as the rest of New York's vast inner city, as much as any other neighborhoods in America. Witness, for instance, his enlistment in the small army of documentarians (Clayton Patterson the most famous among them) of the 1988 Tompkins Square rebellion. Or his co-organizing, with Friedman-August, of a reading by 41 poets on the steps of City Hall. Designed to recapitulate the 41 police bullets that felled the unarmed Diallo, it was the first ever public reading at that historic location.
As writer, Azon was a reliable and fresh guide to all of the trusted and the new to be found below 14th Street, chiefly in his columns and reportage in Downtown and Night, for which he won a Critics' Choice Award. While not shy about expressing his prejudices pro or con, he avoided puffing his wide grasp of the city's alternative artscape, but unaffectedly offered his broad knowledge and keen taste to readers. Frequently he added his characteristic, winking note of humor that cushioned the sharpness of the message. When, as arts editor at Downtown, he couldn't fill the roster himself, he delegated the reportorial task to a small stable of freelancers (this writer included).
In addition, there was his large multimedia gift for graphic and art design, plus his hardedged, explosively colored takes on contemporary urban imagery, a powerful clue to the self-enriching course Azon might have taken if he ever did decide to go commercial, which he avowedly did not.
As the downtown 1980s continue to undergo their endless revivals to the year infinity, any serious visual reconstruction of this rich and crucial place and time that doesn't put Azon's work right up front is failing its mission. It would be like documenting the Civil War without Matthew Brady.
©Museum of Limitations by Bob Heman