Instant Access to Poignancy: Punk’s Graphic History On Display in New Exhibit at Museum of Arts and Design, NYC

The opening festivities at this expansive exhibit, which runs through late August, were often surprisingly intimate

Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die exhibit at NYC’s Museum of Arts and Design

In opposition to punk rock’s integral brevity, it was a long, contemplative day at the opening festivities of the “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” punk graphics exhibit on Monday. Think “Marquee Moon” rather than “Beat on the Brat.”

Not sure why the press and members-only activities of the day came a week after the impressive exhibition was opened to the public, though I suspect this was the precocious doing of brand new Director of MAD, Chris Scoates, who was previously the Director of the Cranbrook Museum in Michigan, where this show originated. Scoates not only sported amazing, shiny white creeper boots and a spiffy punked-up suit, but promised at the noon press junket that he planned on shaking things up at MAD – another fine jewel in NYC’s museum necklace that wavers between expensive gift shop foppery and post-modern jewelry showcases, and more humble youth outreach programming, all leaning on tactile design and imagery. MAD has great film programming too, which included, a few years ago, a screening of the full complement of NYC vintage punk from the old cable access show, Nightclubbing. Those clips are not to be found in this “Too Fast…” show, but a whole hell of a lot else is!

PHOTO: New York Dolls “Detroit Debut” Concert Poster, Photo by Eric Davidson

When the elevator doors open onto the 4th floor, the first thing you see is a looped screening of Amos Poe’s Blank Generation, the classic 1976 documentary of the original NYC punk scene. Brilliant little bursts of Richard Hell, Ramones, Patti Smith, and others teeter in and out – sometimes with sound, sometime not – perfectly mimicking a woozy night through a punk cub, but also tantalizingly frustrating for the fanatical punk completist (who I’m guessing Poe, when he filmed it, never suspected would exist).

PHOTO: Sire Records promotion for the Ramones, Photo by Eric Davidson

Look down, and there’s a glass box full of print ephemera from the whole era, from scrappy local zines to a latter-day Talking Heads retail promo piece. It instantly encapsulates the workably diverse selections in this show.

Framed as “1976-1986,” there are actually some amazing fliers from back to 1975, and a couple straggling Smiths and Psychedelic Furs posters from just beyond ‘86. Parts of the exhibit have excellent signage giving details, while other rooms simply explode with huge walls of year-jumping hype material that seems to want to revel in the “Wait,  The Smiths? Is that punk?” debates. If you must, you can engage in those debates again, but these images, band names and graphic elements that once confounded the mainstream, well, they get museum shows now.  

PHOTO: Alternative Ulster punk rock newspaper. Photo by Eric Davidson

Since the Ramones exhibit at the Queens Museum in 2016, we’ve been in an extended moment of first-era punk reflection. (Check the awesome “Punk Lust” exhibit currently at the Museum of Sex as a good companion piece to this one. 

And so rather than rely on sheer rarity, or expand into costumes, instruments, etc., “Too Fast to Live…” sticks to print ephemera, which is becoming increasingly rare altogether. A friend and I talked about how incredible it is to see things in a museum that you first saw in a record store “FREE” box long ago. So if you’re a little older, there is a fun familiarity to some of this show; for the younger, the beauty, power, and visual energy of the pieces here will no doubt inspire. Especially because the curators (Scoates and Curator at Large, Andrew Blauvelt) decided to leave many of the pieces exposed, not under glass.

PHOTO: AMPEX Tape ad with Blondie illustration. Photo by Eric Davidson

“Well,” explained Scoates, “I look at these things not as ‘high fine art,’ but as once-accessible fun stuff. I wanted it to feel like you were in a teenager’s bedroom. But of course, there are some large ones that really have to be covered.” Speaking of a teenager’s bedroom, an extremely cool addition is the set-up of two turntables with two boxes of a great selection of classic punk LPs to listen to – including some surprises (the Pagans and Angry Samoans!!) that show a curatorial depth of interest in the subject that is sometimes lost in mainstream attempts at “Rock History.”

There are astoundingly rare pieces throughout, like Teenage Jesus & the Jerks fliers and punk zines, that even by 1986 would’ve been hard to stumble upon; and then massive Fun Boy Three posters that are definitely debatable. But again, this is a design museum, and a graphic design show, and in that, the eventual flow of where punk-era graphics went – from little cut ‘n’ paste B&W mimeographs, to large major label primary color placards, to new wave retro revamping – comes across in a wisely juxtaposed manner.

PHOTO: Tour poster for Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Photo by Eric Davidson

If the sub-genre diversions and debates that once framed the punk scene get a little muddled, they do so in a wide-eyed way over two huge floors of material that seems to override those old arguments with sheer graphic hutzpah. And that may be because everything in this exhibit comes from one New York-based collector – Andrew Krivine – a similarly wide-eyed guy who gushed with pride and excitement at getting this show into the city where so much of it originated. “And,” he told me, “this is only about ¼ of what I have!” The show exudes that enthusiasm of a longtime, dedicated fan, rather than a staunch historian.

Nonetheless, there is history seething out of every corner. Especially intriguing is the huge glass box of buttons, badges, and a Damned hair comb even. The simple but glaring political slogans, band names, and images draw you in like a magnet. There’s something about peering down into a one-inch hunk of cheap metal to imagine what some 16-year old was thinking when he bought (or usually stole) it that never ceases to amaze in its concentrated punch. Google, please, please do not develop digital buttons!

PHOTO: Rock band buttons. Photo by Eric Davidson

Right before entering the two o’clock Q&A with legendary Sex Pistols frontman, Johnny Rotten, news was coming down about Notre Dame burning. That of course threw everything into sad, weird perspective. Anyone hanging out at a museum respects the kind of grand art, like Notre Dame, that humans can create; and that if this museum burned, we’d lose all this proof of equally inspired human endeavor. Of course much of the intentions contained in “Too Fast to Live…” involve literally destroying old standards, with organized religion and baroque art pretty high on that list. Those sorts of conundrums carried over into Johnny Rotten’s talk.

PHOTO: Concert poster for The Runaways. Photo by Eric Davidson

I say “talk” because Johnny didn’t let interviewer and Please Kill Me co-author, Gillian McCain, get too many words in. Though every little query she was able to slip in hit Rotten right between those apocalyptic eyes. She did not allow him to brush off or yalp over things, all in an offhandedly humorous way that had the legendarily grumpy punk exposing his, if not soft, then intermittently penetrable sides. Considering the recent viral hilarity of the Epix Punk docu-series panel discussion from a couple weeks, where Rotten and Marky Ramone sparred about punk’s origins, and recent comments Rotten made that seemed pro-Trump – all while sitting in a museum within snot-gobbing distance of Trump Tower – there hovered an obvious pall over the room. But the Q&A remained a spirited chat where Rotten did his thing – funny, very dry British putdowns towards himself and others, contradictions within sentences, and fart jokes. Lots of fart jokes. Which made the incredible moment where he spoke of his sick wife, and that he has in the past drank too much and said dumb shit, all the more remarkable.

 

VIDEO: Marky Ramone and Johnny Rotten argue about the origins of punk.

Still, Rotten’s increasingly adamant assertion that he alone is the reason punk exists borders on parody. Making some smart and funny points throughout the Q&A, and an earlier noon press chat, Rotten implored that entrenched “punk history” has been lying, and that there are loads of social and artistic happenings and accidents that conspire to create art movements – all while repeating riffs on “I created it,” and sitting amidst a huge batch of punk action, about a 1/3 of which was created before the Sex Pistols formed. During the noon press talk, he insisted that the mid-70s CBGB detonation was simply just more rock and didn’t have enough humor – as Pere Ubu fliers and a hilarious photo of the gussied-up New York Dolls danced behind him – and that others get too much credit. Oh yeah Johnny, no one ever mentions you or the Sex Pistols in every single goddamn music history book and documentary. Try being from Cleveland and wondering when Rocket from the Tombs and the Electric Eels are going to get a little ink. (Not to mention McCain’s sly fact that Johnny loved the Stooges as a kid.)

PHOTO: Pere Ubu at Harrah concert poster. Photo by Eric Davidson

Oh, and he doesn’t believe in movements, or the word “art” either, another contradictory and plain silly thing to say that then instantly led to his best and most intriguingly inspirational thought of the day. He doesn’t like the word “art,” because it’s been so bastardized over the years by the image of the chin-scratching, pretentiously effete experts (a stereotype that is a bit stale at this juncture); and that instead he likes to call it “instant access to poignancy” – which is clunky, and seemed like he just made it up that moment. But it was a stunner that kind of swept through the audience, a few hushed awes rising up. And his description of how childhood meningitis put him in a coma, and had him at a point of not being able to simply talk so he wanted to scream it all out, was chilling. One wondered where British punk rock would have gone had Johnny Rotten never got meningitis.    

At one point Rotten admitted, “There I go imitating myself again.” But of course! That’s why we have Johnny Rotten, to stir shit up and get quick with the bards, then onto another topic. Not unlike punk-inspired museum shows, we do not want Johnny Rotten to age gracefully and in a straight narrative line. It wouldn’t make sense and it wouldn’t be fun.

There was a two-hour break until the sartorially spastic VIP party at 5:30, full of free hooch and finger foods which were not nearly dense enough to battle with the free hooch. Once the museum members party started at 7, a roomful of VIPs – who’d spent their punk-loving formative years wishing places always offered free hooch – had already turned it into a proper party.

Then at 8, Johnny Rotten sat down again with McCain for another Q&A. The screening room filled up quick, and they projected the talk onto a wall in the third floor party room, so my gal and I decided to check it out that way this time. But not only were the party members all too hyped and hooched to shut up enough to really hear it, Rotten also seemed a little spent from the whole day. As were my gal and I, who decided to skip the Scientists show over in Brooklyn. Yes, we skipped an active punk show in favor of vintage representations of punk. It was just one more intriguing contradiction formed from of this excellent exhibit. (I caught the Scientists the next night – great show!)

“Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” is on view at MAD until August 18. There are talks and films scheduled throughout the summer; check https://madmuseum.org/ for details.  

 

VIDEO: Robert Gordon – Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die

Eric Davidson

Eric Davidson is a freelance writer from Queens; singer of New Bomb Turks; author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, and former Managing Editor of CMJ. Follow him @lanceforth.

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