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Celebrating the Overlooked Legacy of Downtown Artist Jimmy DeSana

Celebrating the Overlooked Legacy of Downtown Artist Jimmy DeSana

Commemorating what would have been the artist’s 71st birthday this month, we look back at the life and times of an underground art radical.
Anya Phillips, 1978 © Jimmy DeSana. Courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

By the late 1970s, New York’s downtown avant garde rejected the corporate efforts to capitalize on the rebellious spirit of punk rock. Desperate to distance themselves from the horrific death of the Sex Pistols groupie Nancy Spungen at the hands of Sid Vicious at Chelsea Hotel, music industry executives attempted to rebrand the anarchistic music as “New Wave.”

In turn, art radicals adopted the moniker “No Wave” to assert the independence and integrity of the movement. No Wave became an integral part of the burgeoning East Village art scene that emerged in the 1980s as a new generation came of age. Intoxicated by the sweet elixir of fresh blood, MoMA PS1 opened New York/New Wave, a landmark group show organized by Diego Cortez showcasing the work of 118 artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Stephen Sprouse, FUTURA 2000, and DONDI in February 1981.

Ronnie Cutrone, 1979 © Jimmy DeSana. Courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

As soon as that show came down, Couches, Diamonds and Pie went up. Curated by Carol Squiers, the exhibition embraced the emerging photography movement known as the Pictures Generation. Featuring Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michals, Sheila Metzner, Richard Prince, William Wegman, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons, the show also included the work lesser-known artists like Nan Goldin and Jimmy DeSana, both of whom were name checked by Andy Grundberg in his review for The New York Times

While most of the artists would go on to international success, Jimmy DeSana (1949-1990) never quite received his proper due. Described as “anti-art,” DeSana’s work was extremely classical at a time when such a style had become démodé among vaunted members of the Pictures Generation. 

“You never tell a story with Jimmy’s photos,” says Robert Stefanotti, DeSana’s gallerist and close friend. “He never wanted to dress himself up in a particular character piece. He was interested in just a unique isolated controlled image that brought you into an aesthetic that is very different from a lot of contemporary art. It doesn’t lend itself to the coarseness and loudness that became popular in the 1980s.”

Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, 1977 © Jimmy DeSana. Courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

The Art of Subversion

Born in Detroit and raised in Atlanta, DeSana published his first mature work, 101 Nudes, in 1972. Set amid the suburban landscape, DeSana cast himself and friends in a series of grainy black and white nude photographs that were, in his words, “without eroticism.” Evoking the work of Man Ray, DeSana decontextualized the body, turning it into an abstracted landscape that signaled the direction the artist would head in when he moved to New York City the following year. The body became his primary subject, a space to stage and explore elements of the fringe with the eye of a connoisseur. 

Like Mapplethorpe, who explored BDSM in the infamous X-Portfolio, fetish became DeSana’s stomping grounds. In the 1979 book, Submission, he brought together a collection of intentionally ambiguous black and white photographs that evoke the gritty spirit of the downtown punk scene. Every image was so perfectly staged that William S. Burroughs, who contributed a text to the book, mistakenly thought these were documentary photographs. 

William Burroughs, 1977 © Jimmy DeSana. Courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

“Jimmy was the ultimate voyeur. He lived through his camera,” Stefanotti says. “He was a quiet, Warhol sort of personality, which meant you were fascinated by everything and everybody to a certain extent and then you moved on. When he found something, he wasn’t the Weegee type who would take the photo on the spot. There was never anything spontaneous about what Jimmy did. He would calculate what he wanted to do and then he would go back. Or he would see somebody and want to photograph them in a particular way, then spend hours getting them into a position he wanted.”

A Snapshot of the Downtown Scene

In the 1970s, New York galleries were just starting to introduce photography to the art world but it simply did not command the same prices that painting and sculpture could set. “Jimmy was one of the first photographers I showed,” says Stefanotti, who exhibited contemporary artists including Malcolm Morley, Larry Rivers, Vito Acconci, and Dennis Oppenheim at his 57th Street galleries. 

Andy Warhol, 1978 © Jimmy DeSana. Courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

“Soho was where we escaped to get away from the confinement of uptown, which is where the money was. Jimmy was living with Laurie Simmons and Jane Kaplowitz in a big communal loft down on Broadway. We loved to mix with everyone. It was a very open scene.”

In 1979, Stefanotti gave DeSana his first solo exhibition: a collection of black and white portraits of uptown and downtown luminaries including Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Jack Smith, Nam June Paik, Eric Mitchell, and Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi of Iran. 

“I felt it was time to start showing photos that weren’t just conceptual art. Jimmy’s photos of Andy Warhol, Ethel Scull, and Henry Geldzahler attracted more attention [from the uptown crowd] but the photos that actually were better had the grit of downtown. I could see it even then. The people he photographed were not that used to being photographed. The downtown people played at being a celebrity and have fun with it. He got more out of that.” 

Cover: Eric Mitchell, 1978 © Jimmy DeSana. Courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

Gone Too Soon

In 1984, Stefanotti closed his gallery and moved to Rome to join the Order of Carmelites. “I spent a lot of time at Bellevue Hospital as a chaplain, working with AIDS patients. A lot of the artists I worked with were dying. I needed to make a break. Jimmy was really taking off and so he saw that as a bit of a disappointment but we were always dear friends,” Stefanotti says.

“I helped him figure out where the estate was going to go when he got AIDS. What I didn’t do is help him to commit suicide. Jimmy wanted to set his death up as a photo. He had it all planned. He had the gun and the camera. The two would be connected and go off at the same time. I said no. Eventually he died in probably the best way you could: peacefully with his mother at his side. Not to have a photograph of it like that — but for Jimmy, everything was a photo and he wanted his death to be that way too.”

Eric Mitchell, 1978 © Jimmy DeSana. Courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

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, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

More information on Jimmy DeSana here.

The Jimmy Desana Trust is represented by Salon 94. A number of works are now in the collection of the Fales Library at New York University

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