POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 6, 2014
NEW YORK » At the end of March, Clayton Patterson, the outlaw artist, was sitting in the window of his storefront home on Essex Street complaining about New York. It's something Patterson does well. He is an accomplished ranter, whose disputes with the city are numerous and varied but tend to revolve around the ruination of the Lower East Side by luxury apartments, ugly corporate chain stores, overpriced parking meters, pretentious restaurants and college students who vomit on the street.
After 35 years of these diminutions - years in which his friends have died, his favorite haunts have vanished, his drinks have gotten more and more expensive and his work has stayed unknown, at least beyond the boundaries of the countercultural hard core - Patterson had finally had enough.
Early this winter, to the shock of those who knew him, he made an announcement: He was leaving New York. This was news in what remained of the creative underground that sits below 14th Street. After all, one of the last men who could credibly claim the title of Manhattan's last bohemian had not only decided he was quitting the city, he also figured he could find a richer existence 4,000 miles away - in the Austrian Alps.
"There's nothing left for me here," said Patterson, who, at 65, is still a physical presence, with his biker's beard, Santa Claus belly and mouth of gold teeth. "The energy is gone. My community is gone. I'm getting out. But the sad fact is: I didn't really leave the Lower East Side. It left me."
While it's certainly no secret that downtown institutions, like CBGB and the Knitting Factory, have been disappearing one by one for years, Patterson's pending departure is further proof, as if more proof were needed, of the difficulties artists face in surviving the seemingly irreversible tide of gentrification. What does it suggest that a man who endured the crack epidemic, the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and at least a dozen arrests can no longer stand what the city has become?
"What Clayton is telling us is that his world is gone and that he's going too," said Alan Kaufman, a writer and a friend of Patterson's. "This ought to send up a red flag for someone. It's remarkable, really. It's kind of like Atget quitting Paris."
Almost from the moment he arrived from Calgary, Alberta, in 1979, Patterson's world has been the downtown demimonde of squatters, anarchists, graffiti taggers, tattoo artists, junkie poets, leathered rock 'n' rollers and Santeria priests. When he and his companion, Elsa Rensaa - she, too, is an artist - landed in New York, they took an apartment on the Bowery where their $450 monthly rent was paid by their jobs producing commercial art prints, and where one of their neighbors was the not-yet-famous painter Keith Haring.
Four years later, the couple bought the building where they live today - once a dressmaker's shop, at 161 Essex St. - at a time when Art in America magazine described the neighborhood as a "blend of poverty, punk rock, drugs, arson, Hell's Angels, winos, prostitutes and dilapidated housing." This was the culture that Patterson seized as his subject, wandering the area on endless expeditions with his camera and gradually acquiring an archive of ephemera that grew to include graffiti stickers, concert posters, images of tattoos, thousands of hours of audiotape and videotape and empty heroin bags he had picked up off the streets.
Gentrification can often gestate invisibly for years, and in the mid-1980s, as Patterson founded the Tattoo Society of New York and opened up the Clayton Gallery on the first floor of his home, The Village Voice was already reporting that major developers like Helmsley-Spear were investing millions of dollars on vacant lots and abandoned buildings in the neighborhood. Even as local rents began to rise, Patterson's arts space was showing work by nontraditional artists like Hasidic Jews and the leader of a local motorcycle gang. Here were the conflicted seeds of an eventual transformation: On the one hand, corporate money was pouring in; on the other, Patterson was making custom baseball caps for rebel celebrities like Matt Dillon and Gus Van Sant.
Then, on Aug. 6, 1988, hundreds of downtown residents clashed with the police in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. The nominal issue was a 1 a.m. curfew imposed on the park, which had turned into an encampment of the homeless and a gathering place for what were described by many as skinheads, drifters and rowdy youths. As darkness fell, officers in riot gear descended on the crowd, and a nightlong melee followed. The park that night turned into something like "a war zone," The reported; more than 100 complaints of police brutality were lodged; and Patterson caught it all on tape.
It was, in a sense, the height of his career as a documentary artist. The networks showed his footage on the nightly news, and journalists and academics called on him for quotes. While Patterson was able to capitalize on the attention and channel it into projects that later included a well-received photo exhibition, "L.E.S. Captured," and a multivolume history of the Lower East Side's Jews, for him the riot marked the moment when the city's business interests and security apparatus joined forces and, in so doing, made New York unlivable.
It took another quarter-century for progressives in the city to catch up with Patterson, who stayed in New York despite its metamorphosis, with an obstinate belief that if he couldn't counteract the creeping corporatization, he could at least manage an existence on its margins. Twenty-five years is a long time to live on hope; but a few months ago, just as it had finally died, something happened to restore it.
But first, there were more losses.
In July 2011, the Mars Bar, a notorious dive on East First Street that Patterson frequented, closed its doors and turned into a TD Bank branch. A few months later, the Life Cafe, where an acquaintance, Jonathan Larson, wrote a portion of the musical "Rent," was suddenly shut down. Last year, it was the artists' bar Max Fish, which decamped to Brooklyn, prompting a devastated Twitter fan (not Patterson) to write: "Final nail to the post-punk guts of upper Ludlow Street's coffin."
But perhaps the cruelest blow of all was the death last May of Taylor Mead, an artist and actor who rose to fame in the 1960s after starring in a series of underground films by Andy Warhol. At age 88, Mead was forced from his home on Ludlow Street, where he had lived for more than 30 years, after battling his landlord, who was converting the building into market-rate apartments. He moved to Colorado and within a month he had died of a stroke. When Patterson got the news, he was crushed.
"The fact is, no one gave a damn about Taylor Mead," he said, "and what it made me realize was just how vulnerable people in this city are - even well-known and well-loved people. I might think that I'm the king of the world, but the truth is there's no appreciation here for what I do or what I've done." Patterson was increasingly afraid of ending up like Mead: "Hocked up on the curb," as he put it, "like a gob of bad meat."
Complicating matters, his partner, Rensaa, had been suffering from memory loss since she sustained a blow to the head in the chaos of Sept. 11. Last fall, two intruders broke into their home while Patterson was out, and although Rensaa was not harmed, the experience scared her half to death. Patterson himself isn't getting any younger - "I'm an overweight male," he complained, "at the end of the road" - and so this winter, he decided it was high time to fashion an escape plan. He immediately thought of Bad Ischl, a spa town in Austria, where he has been involved with the Wildstyle tattoo and music festival for nearly 15 years.
If the notion of a New York fixture like Patterson moving to a chalet in the Alps struck some in his circle as unfathomably strange, it nonetheless possessed a certain logic. There exists in Bad Ischl, Patterson contends, a creative community of artists, writers, tattoo designers and musicians that "is very much alive." Then, too, he happens to be big in Austria - unlike in New York. "They love me over there," he said. "They think of me as America's No. 1 underground photographer."
Still, as the news of his retreat leaked out, the downtown avant-garde shuddered with amazement and despair. "Clayton is the neighborhood - or what's left of it," said Ron Kolm, a poet, editor and bookseller who once worked at the Strand with Patti Smith. "I guess I always figured that he'd be the last one standing, surrounded by tall buildings. This really is the end of an era."
To Daniel Levin, who directed "Captured," a 2008 documentary about Patterson and his work, the plan to leave New York was further evidence of the city's cultural decline. "Sadly, ironically, New York is displacing the people that made it what it was," Levin said. "The entire city has become a playground for money, wealth and sterilized housing, and that's not what's traditionally made it interesting."
Then again, Patterson has reached that point in life when the youthful allure of being interesting has slowly given way in importance to the more mature comforts of belonging. Bad Ischl, on the River Traun, has a population of 14,000 people. "It's a very small village - everybody knows everybody," said Max Hirnbvch, a tattoo artist there who met Patterson in 1995.
While Hirnbvch wondered how his friend would adjust - "the mountain air, no crime at all" - he assumed that Patterson would eventually fit in. "The last time he was here, I gave him a traditional Bad Ischl hat and I have to say he looked quite good in it," Hirnbvch said. "Clayton is already part of our family. And we are going to take care of him."
It was at this point, just as Patterson's Austrian adventure was starting to take shape, that the city surprised him. One night, not long ago, he was at Katz's Delicatessen, on Houston Street, at a photography show. He saw a young woman in the crowd - in her 20s, exquisitely dressed - whose fashion sense impressed him. Patterson asked if he could take the woman's picture, she agreed, and they gradually got to talking. It turned out her fianci was the singer for a band called Dameht, whose members had distantly worshiped him for years.
What resulted from this spontaneous encounter was a creative collaboration of the sort that Patterson thought no longer existed in New York. The singer, Gary Angulo, whose nom de band is Rivington (for the street on the Lower East Side), commissioned Patterson to design a logo for the group's leather jackets. When Angulo and friends - artists, musicians, filmmakers and a couple of professionals who worked in public relations - discovered that their idol was on the verge of leaving New York, they decided to honor his departure with a gallery show.
"So much of what you see these days in terms of art is just veneer," said one of the friends, Kate Litvinov, who is 25 and helped secure a pop-up space for the show in the meatpacking district, on West 15th Street and Ninth Avenue. "But Clayton and Elsa's work is real, it's authentic. It doesn't derive from anything but itself."
The show, "$16 Burger" (Patterson loves to complain about the price of New York food), is scheduled to open April 15 and to include a collection of Patterson's photographs and several of his rarely seen ink-on-paper prints. Rensaa's work - mostly portraits done in oil - will be on display as well.
On a recent afternoon, Patterson, in his thick black glasses and a baseball cap embroidered with a skull, was on all fours tagging the gallery's whitewashed floor with a chalk reproduction of one of his most familiar black-and-white designs: a squiggly, graffiti-esque NYC. Angulo had just ducked out for coffee for the members of his band, who were mopping the floorboards and polishing the windows. A laptop on the bar was streaming a Ramones song. Art was being made and Patterson looked ecstatic.
"It's kind of like a dream," he said, "to have found these kids just as I was on my way out. My whole life has been about the old New York, and here they are about the new New York."
As the afternoon went on, the Ramones gave way to more obscure contemporary music, but Patterson, directing an assistant with a pool cue, did not mind. He was, it seemed, in his element again, drawing, painting, pausing to consider things with a pensive tug on his beard. One of the band members, in skinny jeans and new wave hair, followed him in circles around the room. He was documenting everything that Patterson did, on a hand-held video camera.
It had been a heady day. Patterson had worked for hours and talked - he loves to talk - not about what a wasteland the city had become, but instead about Pop Art, Google, Jean Baudrillard, Lou Reed and the cultural significance of the television program "The Real Housewives of New York." His plan to flee the city hadn't changed, but Austria seemed very far away.
"It's exciting," Patterson admitted. "It feels like we've got youth here - youth, vitality and interest. It's almost like we're on the threshold of a new moment. Who knows? Maybe this is the beginning of an actual beginning."
Alan Feuer, New York Times