MA History of Art

“Drop Dead” New York: Art, Film and Activism Downtown, 1971-1992

Dr Tom Day

On the morning of October 30, 1975 one of New York City’s tabloid newspapers, the Daily News, carried an infamous headline on its front page: ‘FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD’. The story was a reaction to president Gerald Ford’s comments the previous evening at a press club meeting in which he refused to offer further federal financial assistance to the city of New York which was then going through one of the worst fiscal crises in its history. Crumbling infrastructure, rising crime rates and a squeeze on public services had seen Downtown New York City labelled as one of the worst places to live in America. In ‘“Drop Dead” New York: Art, Film and Activism Downtown, 1971-1992’ we will discover that this period was also one of the most creatively fecund eras of art-making and activism in the history of the city as artists responded to the 1970s and 1980s, an age beset by financial precarity and inequality, racism, homophobia, urban deindustrialization, degeneration and gentrification.

After an introductory pre-history (downtown before “Downtown”) we will explore a range of topics with weeks (in some cases multiple weeks) on sculpture (Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Gordon Matta-Clark); performance and dance (Judson Dance theatre, the Kitchen); race and performance (Adrian Piper, Pope L. and David Hammons); Feminist art collectives (A.I.R. Gallery); the art and queer culture of Manhattan’s Westside piers; the Pictures Generation (Cindy Sherman, Dara Birnbaum, Gretchen Bender); music and the club scene (Mudd Club, Club 57); Warhol, painting and trans activism (Marsha P. Johnson and the ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ series); film and tv culture (artists’ television, the No-wave and Cinema of Transgression movements); the East Village scene (Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Martin Wong, Tesng Kwong Chi); art and AIDS activism; and art and gentrification. The course is symbolically bookended by the 1971 exhibition Projects: Pier 18, a group show of 27 artists that used modes of art (photography, conceptualism and performance) that became strongly associated with the decade unfolding thereafter, and the death in 1992 of David Wojnarowicz, a central figure in the history of queer art and AIDS activism. We will read and engage with thinking from a wide array of fields including economic history; urban studies; political history; art, film and music history; feminist, queer and critical race theory; and the history of New York City to uncover and examine a multidisciplinary and intermedial era of art-making and resistance in one of the world’s most vital spaces of human creativity and contradiction.

Please note: site visits in the UK and further afield are subject to Covid-19 guidelines.

Course Leader: Dr Tom Day

In the event that a course leader is on sabbatical, takes up a fellowship, or otherwise is not able to the teach the course, they will be replaced by another experienced course leader either for the autumn term, or in some cases, the academic year.

Option Full MA History of Art

Special Options 2022/23

Please Note: Special Options vary from year to year and are subject to demand. The Courtauld reserves the right to amend or withdraw the options which run if necessary, and will always directly inform all applicants of any changes via email and our website.