“Young Turks” was a term borrowed by Stephen Seemayer to describe 12 pioneer Downtown L.A. artists who were interviewed in his 1981 film, “Young Turks.” Seemayer wanted to document the Golden Age of the Downtown L.A. art scene (1976-1982).
That same year Marc Kreisel hosted The Young Turkey Awards, there was a Young Turks exhibition at Downtown Gallery, there were screenings and performances. Finally, also in 1981, my small publishing company, Astro Artz, published a book, Young Turks, which contained documentation and the shooting script of the film. You can still buy the book on Amazon.
The Young Turks – all selected by Seemayer – were, in alphabetical order:
performance artists/painters Bob & Bob (Francis Shishim and Paul Velick), writer Linda Frye Burnham, sculptor Woods Davy, sculptor James Croak, all-around madman Eric (Randy) Johnsen, painter/landlord/bar owner Marc Kreisel, sculptor Jon Petersen, conceptualist Monique Safford, sculptor John Schroeder, performance artist/filmmaker Stephen Seemayer, sculptor Coleen Sterritt, painter Andrew Wilf.
The book had an introduction by the late art critic Joan Hugo. Seemayer’s artist statement was also included. Here’s what he said:
I moved to Downtown Los Angeles because it was cheap. Everything was filthy and used, but for the square foot you couldn’t beat the price. The area had an edge to it. You could feel it when you walked down the street. The smog was as thick as charcoal briquettes and derelicts were everywhere. Downtown was a harsh contrast from my other studio in the culturally isolated, temperature-controlled bedroom community of the San Fernando Valley.
For 1976 to 1981, I went around Downtown Los Angeles with a movie camera and recorded the street people, business people and artists. The artists in the film were my good friends. I was able to get close enough to them to film some personal aspects of their lives, other than just the typical art rap. In preparation for this book, I decided to use the exact words from the soundtrack of the film and not to rearrange it. This may account for the awkwardness of the dialogue.
There is a high degree of energy and individualism in Los Angeles. Young Turks is only a small fraction of the art scene in Los Angeles.
The awards, the film, the exhibition are now over. The Downtown Los Angeles area is constantly changing, and that change is what this book is all about.
Here are a few quotes from the film, with “celebrity photos” from the book by Monique Safford:
Jim Croak (in his studio on Skid Row): “I think the pivotal point recently in my work was the dead dog piece. I had a sculpture in progress that was designed to be more or less an exercise in form and composition, and one of my show dogs, a full-grown German Shepard, a very beautiful German Shepard, apparently got disoriented and jumped down a light-well, fell 47 feet, crashed through a skylight and landed on the sculpture.”
Marc Kreisel (in Al’s Bar): “I’m not going to be in the film. And don’t point that camera at me. I’m telling you. Get that fucking camera away from me.”
Woods Davy (in Pino’s Tropical Paradise Bar on Broadway, wearing a boa constrictor around his neck): “Tomorrow’s another day. I can’t quite tell and perhaps I’ll have to get some Visine or Mentholatum later on or something along those lines. I don’t know. The night’s but a pup. I can’t tell. But as far as I know right now, I’m pretty much strapped in here, if you catch my drift.”
Monique Safford (in her studio near 2nd and Los Angeles): “I didn’t feel very comfortable. It was like Downtown–male, macho stuff, so I made this real slave cocksucker image, and dedicated it to the boys at 239 South Los Angeles Street. This was before I and a lot of other women moved in.”
Jon Peterson (talking about his one-person architecture or “bum shelters”): “I put them in Skid Row, in Downtown L.A., right by my studio. Most of them were in the lot right across the street where bums have been sleeping for years, and I’d been kind of observing them. They were used much more than I ever thought they would be.”
John Schroeder: “We went up over the rise on this little hill, looked down a wash and there were like twenty horses in stages of decomposition, and that was like a Goya, right? Walking into disasters of war. … I took off a whole roll of film, which was real nice, and I used two skull caps [in an artwork] and a rib and a little bit of hair and eagle feathers…”
Coleen Sterritt: “You know, I think we should include some dialog about women and relationships, about relating to their work, men and how it affects. … It’s really important to me that we talk about that.”
Andy Wilf (on his grisly paintings of animal corpses: “These paintings seem quiet now but they’re arresting in person. I had big-shot people come over and look at them. They say, ‘Well, somebody’s got to do them, but I don’t want to live with them in my room, so there’s a hello-goodbye to you’.”
Randy Johnsen (in Seemayer’s screening room watching “Young Turks” rushes): “Steve. Cut this out. Right now. I was so fuckin’ high, man. You can’t have me in a film like that. I don’t talk like that. I don’t even look like me, man.”
Dark Bob: “We found out people dug drugs, people dug sex, people dug throwing their money around., so we made work about it. It was all influential out of this city.”
Stephen Seemayer: “I’ve been here so long trapped in the city. The city’s all around me. It just won’t get away from me. All these buildings around my head wherever I look. I just can’t get away from them.” (He screams.)
Seemayer was trying to capture the grittiness of the art scene. Most of the artists in this film did incredibly edgy, even violent and gory artwork. Most of it truly felt like a response to living Downtown.
Seemayer was a great friend of mine. He had a studio at Olympic and Central where he built a screening room for his films. He had boundless energy and was an extremely ambitious artist, having started creating art performances as a teenager. He was also possibly the first artist to rent empty warehouse space downtown, subdivide it, clean it up and sublet it to other artists. He and Jon Peterson built a little empire that way. I worked for them as an assistant for a couple of months in 1979. Sometime in the ´80s or ´90s Seemayer got married and withdrew from Downtown into an intensely personal space, but kept on making art. In 2011 Richard Newton drew him out to participate in a month-long group exhibition at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica called “Have You Seen My Privacy?” On March 17, Seemayer presented an extraordinary video about his work, “Being Human.”
I wrote a suite of poems for the Young Turks. They were included in my 1981 book of stories and poetry, Heartland Drive In Coke. Here’s the one I wrote about Seemayer:
Memorial 2030 A.D.
He had a collection of ice.
He alphabetized his tools.
He only fucked standing up.
He visited every country in the world.
He did not drink water.
He built a shrine to his mother.
He made 5,200,000 drawings.
He invented seismo-structural video.
He wrote the screenplay.
He had wolves.
He never married.
Let’s built a city on his grave.
Richard Newton and I moved to Downtown L.A. in 1976 – to my knowledge the second and third artists to do so (the first was, reportedly, Dan Cytron). I say “artists,” though I am a writer, not a visual artist. We moved from Orange County to the fifth floor of a bare furniture warehouse in the bridal district at 240. S. Broadway, the now infamous Victor Clothing Building. We got 8,000 square feet for $500 a month. When we moved in we found a photograph on the floor, the picture Kent Twitchell had used to create his five-story mural of a Latino bride and groom on the outer east wall. It was there that we started High Performance magazine with $2,000 I borrowed on my signature from the credit union at UC Irvine, where I had a job in the public information office.
Living Downtown was exhilarating after the perfect lawns and expensive lifestyle of Orange County, where everything smelled like Coppertone. But it wasn’t easy. It was dangerous, especially in the ´80s when the crack epidemic blew through L.A. It was filthy and uncomfortable, at the confluence of 11 freeways. The noise was shattering and it was so smoggy you couldn’t see the city from the I-10. Once every nine months or so it would rain and wash away the smog and we would all run out to our fire escapes to look at the mountains. We had to drive 20 minutes to get groceries or do laundry or go to the movies. In winter it was really cold in those cement industrial spaces and in the summer the thermometer would rise over 100 degrees. I wrote a song about living Downtown, recorded in 1984 for the LP edition of High Performance, “Artists Doing Songs.” You can hear it here.
I’m hungry but there’s nothing open. The kerosene’s all gone.
I woke up this morning and the lights were all still on.
You came in about 4 a.m. with some guys from a leather bar
And now my stereo is broken and I can’t find my car.
You promised me I’d be happy if I moved up here with you.
Now I got the downtown wintertime Sunday morning blues.
The pipes are full of Fixall. The water heater’s broke.
Your grant came in last weekend and you spent it all on coke.
My parents were here on Sunday and my daddy like to died.
My mama sat down on that smelly old couch and she cried & cried & cried.
I promised them they’d be happy if I moved up here with you.
Now they got the downtown wintertime Sunday morning blues.
We’re living off a hot plate. We got roaches we got rats.
It’s so damn cold we watch TV in our mittens and our hats.
The ceiling’s leaking something and I don’t know what it is
But it’s dripping on your brother in that sleeping bag of his.
The elevator’s down again and there won’t be no repairs.
Now you want me to carry drywall up seven flights of stairs.
You know my daddy told me, You need a car if you’re downtown.
I put a Ford in the parking lot: They stripped it to the ground.
I came down here to this local joint just to try to stay alive.
Some guy comes up, puts his hand up my skirt and says, How about 25?
You know I lost every friend I ever had. Nothing left to lose
But them downtown wintertime Sunday morning blues.
Richard Newton moved out of 240 S. Broadway in 1979 and The Dark Bob moved in. Bob & Bob were notoriously Beverly Hills, but Dark Bob’s brief cohabitation with me qualified him to be a Young Turk for Seemayer’s film. Bob & Bob did paintings and performances and songs. One of their most notorious performances was what we now call a rave, “Forget Everything You Know,” in a Downtown warehouse on New Year’s Eve, 1979. They were (and are) hilarious. I wrote a book about them in 1981, Bob & Bob: The First Five Years. You can find out more about them on the Web. Dark Bob is still doing performances and a lot of great music, which you can hear on Soundcloud.
I spent a lot of time in Al’s Bar at Traction & Hewitt during the early ´80s. Al’s was “the only bar in town,” according to its matchbook. Captained by Marc Kreisel (also a Turk), it was literally the only place for artists to go, a sort of way station for all of us stranded in the urbs while everybody else was clubbing it up in Hollywood. It was unbelievably grungy, but I recall with fondness the ladies’ room, with its large graffiti cartoon of Jesus on the cross yelling, “Hey, I can see your house from here!” It went on to be a massively popular punk music scene and closed in 2000. Al’s is still there, locked up now but apparently rentable for private affairs. The whole neighborhood has gentrified to the point where the “loft” building across the street boasts an indoor swimming pool.
Kreisel, a truly sarcastic guy, was also an artists’ landlord and was known as a hard case in that regard. He pioneered the American Hotel, a flophouse for artists, and he was co-owner in the building where Carl Davis and his Art Dock were located. Here’s the poem I wrote about Kreisel:
Life is a good quick wisecrack
pressed between the teeth
and around the sweet end
of a short cigar
on a street corner
by an amusement park
in the path of a freeway
owned by me.
Tears, laughter, later.
This was the same era during which I was invited by painters Gary Worrell and Dennis Goddard to join them in starting the smelliest gallery ever sited in Los Angeles: Exile. For me it only lasted for one summer, and it’s sort of a blur. It was on an alley on Winston St. and it smelled like piss. Some historic and gawdawful things happened in there but we liked it.
You can read a lot more about these times at “The Art Dockuments,” a great website by Carlton Davis primarily focusing on his drive-by gallery at 1st and Central, The Art Dock. As Carl has recorded, we were all living in our studios unlawfully and we had to scramble when the building inspectors came around. Eventually, LACE (the artspace that sprang up two floors below me in 1978) promoted a new city live/work regulation, which by 1982 made it legal for artists to live and work in our spaces, but the new law had strict building codes that couldn’t be avoided. When we learned that we’d have to come up with the money to move our water heater five feet to the right, we moved out. It was the same with many of the art denizens of Downtown. We had moved there purely because it was really cheap. It didn’t stay that way long. We left and were replaced by photographers and architects (read: people who can actually make a living from their creative work). The area is now called “The Arts District” and has “loft buildings” with locked gates and security guards. Rents are outrageous, but at least there’s more than one good bar.
I think with fondness and some trepidation about my wild adventures with the people in Seemayer’s film, especially my interactions with the late Andy Wilf. He rented some studio space from me on Broadway. Andy was widely known as both an up-and-coming painter and a destructive alcoholic. With Andy the first two drinks were lots of fun. By the third he would turn surly. At his worst, he threw my TV out the fifth-floor window and chased me with a butcher knife. I remember the knife clanging off the steel door of the kitchen as I slammed it in his face. Like all abusers, the next morning he would be sorry. He died in 1982 at the age of 33. He had a future; it’s so sad that he didn’t live to realize it. Here’s the poem I wrote about Andy:
The city knifes my ears,
Determination yanks the heart
and my hands swell with yearning.
I am fumbling with a terrible desire to shatter everything
to tear it, pulverize it,
or at least
to cut away what’s dead.
I lie here gripping instruments in sleep
before the sun comes up
and day grinds out
and night comes down,
the wall still white across the room.
Those were the days. I strongly remember Seemayer’s gushing enthusiasm about the moment. We were making art history, he often said, guaranteeing that Al’s Bar would be as famous as New York’s Cedar Tavern of the 1950s. We laughed.
Most of us drifted apart and only a few still live in L.A. Carl Davis has chased down the whereabouts of the Turks who showed in the Art Dock, and you can read about them in his Dockuments: Croak, Kreisel, Safford, Schroeder and Wilf. I moved to Santa Monica in 1988, then left California in 1993 with my partner, artist Steven Durland. We wound up in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, on 28 acres of trees, where we got married. We live in a singlewide and two yurts. It’s really quiet and the air is crystal clear. We are happy. We don’t miss L.A.