A new book and exhibition revisit downtown New York in 1981 and capture the face of a lost generation just before the pandemic struck.
In the Deep South lies Greenville, Mississippi, a distinctly progressive town set amid a conservative landscape that gave birth to writers, musicians, and artists including photographer and filmmaker Allen Frame. Being LGBTQ was an unspoken fact of life; few like sculptor Leon Koury had the courage to come out. In the early 1970s, while on break from Harvard University and later Imageworks, Frame spent time at Koury’s studio, finding a source of connection that kept him from feeling like a complete outsider in hypermasculine world.
Dying to escape, Frame moved first to Boston before arriving in New York in 1977 just as the Gay Liberation Movement was in full swing. In 1981, he got a place on Perry Street just blocks from the Stonewall Inn, the site of the historic uprising in the fight for LGBTQ rights. At a time when one could easily afford to live, work, and party in New York, Frame took a job cleaning apartments, which left him with plenty of time to revel in the city’s burgeoning downtown art scene. Frame hung out in the East Village amid a new crop of artists and photographers including Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Kenny Scharf, Dan Mahoney, Peter Hujar, and Alvin Baltrop.
At the same time, Frame was making his own body of work, which French critic Gilles Mora and photographer Claude Nori described as “photobiography.” Like Goldin and Armstrong, Frame created a journal of his personal life, one that evokes the warm intimacy of a family photo album. No longer an outsider, Frame was fully immersed among the avant garde but a penchant for mystery and suspense remained in his work, one that becomes all the more poignant in light of the catastrophe that would soon destroy the fragile world he loved.
And the Band Played On
The new exhibition Allen Frame: NYC 1981 and monograph Fever offer a glimpse of innocence preserved forevermore like the proverbial fly trapped in amber. Frame celebrated his 30th birthday on April 17, 1981 at the home of Peruvian artist Coco Ugaz along with writer Bill Jacobson and publicist John West. On July 3, the New York Times published its first story about an unknown disease they described as a “rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer” affecting gay men. In time, Ugaz, West, and Jacobson would die of the disease, now known as AIDS.
“I lost many of the friends that I had. It was very very traumatic,” Frame told American Suburb X. In short time, a generation disappeared, the famous and anonymous alike, living an unfillable void in their wake. Frame’s photographs, which combine the immediacy of the snapshot with the timeless sensibilities of fine art, preserve the face of a lost generation. Here, we see a world filled with possibility and hope, the hallmarks of youth made all the more poignant by the sense that they cannot begin to imagine the terrors the future will hold.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
"Allen Frame: NYC 1981," Gitterman Gallery, online exhibition here.
Fever, MATTE Editions, $40.00. Available here.