Joe Kelly’s exhibit of large black-and-white photographs captures the grit and glamour of Manhattan in the strutting and stumbling days before Mayor Rudy Giuliani transformed Times Square from a warren of drugs, prostitution, and pornography into a carnival of capitalism and consumption. Kelly was there—in line at the Mudd Club, at parties with Warhol, and on the dance floor at Studio 54. His lens captured celebrated stars and historical happenings, but, most importantly, Kelly’s work opens a window to a lost world where bums, junkies, models, punks, divas, disco queens, painters, and actors rubbed shoulders, shared their drugs and shook their booties in the Big Apple, heeding Mick Jagger’s advice to take a bite and “don’t mind the maggots.”
I think of Kelly primarily as a street photographer—even his interior shots of clubs, discos, and parties bristle with the same movement and energy found in his sidewalk scenes. His images of a drunk man blocking traffic and preaching at the sky or of a kid playing in the gushing relief of an open fire hydrant on a summer street both recall the New York City of the 1970s and 1980s that endures most vividly in films like Taxi Driver, Serpico, Across 110th Street, Saturday Night Fever and The Warriors.
The most contemporaneous cinematic antecedent to Kelly’s show is Downtown 81—the docudrama starring Jean-Michel Basquiat as a homeless artist spending his day trying to sell a painting, find a girl, and get into music clubs without paying the cover charge. That film is a definitive document of the rise of hip hop, graffiti art, b-boy culture and new wave music. Kelly’s exhibition is similarly titled, New York City: 1981, but the artist’s photos seem more like a memorial: Downtown documented the beginnings of a brand new scene, while Kelly captures the last days of disco (his Studio 54 photos are of a re-opening party after the club was sold by its founders), the last days of Warhol (he died in 1987), and the aftermath of John Lennon’s murder, in a suite of images depicting mourners straining against police barriers outside the Dakota apartment building on December 8, 1980.
Lennon and Warhol aren’t the only stars photographed or referenced in Kelly’s snapshots of his place and his time. BBC Films recently announced a new documentary project about the statuesque fashion icon/singer Grace Jones, whom Kelly captured on the dance floor at Studio 54. He also photographed a doe-eyed, 16-year-old Brooke Shields at the same club, escorted by the man who made the jeans that made her famous: Calvin Klein.
While candid shots of celebrities at play have their appeal, it’s Kelly’s photographs of Studio 54 and Mudd Club regulars acting out superstar fantasies along the bars and on the dance floors of those long-ago Saturday nights that really hold the attention here. In Kelly’s New York, it’s impossible to separate the glam from the grime as we watch his beautiful young subjects—some vampires, some angels, all creatures of the night—living inside a Leonard Cohen song and “running for the money and the flesh.”
The anonymous dancers in photos like Girl Dancing with Cigarette and Man Dancing with Mohawk gyrate alongside mirrors that reflect the inherent narcissism of the Warhol-era’s fetishizing of fame, bolstered by drugs, soaked in alcohol, and made beautiful in every tiny reflection of a spinning disco ball. It sounds like fun and it probably was. It sounds sad too, and you can see that in these photos as well, if only in their evoking of the grief that always accompanies something lost and gone forever.
“Joe Kelly: New York City, 1981” is on view at Belmont University’s Leu Art Gallery through May 9.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.