’80s Arts Exhibit: Poets and Punks Push Back

Out of Frame - Thrasher Magazine Image, Feb. 1987

After widespread commercialization of popular culture in the 1960s and ’70s, during the decade of the 1980s the creative world was set to push back against a glitzy mainstream culture that embraced the idea “greed is good.”

Along came experimental, cutting-edge, and dissident approaches to art-making in the form of punk rock, artists’ books, and an explosion of poets, performance artists, and other alternative art forms.

“Out of the Frame: Alternative Arts of the 1980s” focuses on the national and Connecticut expressions of this art in an exhibition at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center using works from the Center’s Archives and Special Collections section. The exhibition continues through May 11.

Included in the exhibition are offset lithographically printed books, poetry recordings compiled through the Dial-A-Poem Project, and music, posters, and ephemera from the punk rock scene. Out of the Frame is the result of collaborative work by Dodd Center curators Melissa Watterworth Batt, Kristin Eshelman, and Graham Stinnett.

While discussing their respective collecting areas, the three curators began to consider items they might need to add depth to their various collections, including The Ann Charters Collection of Spoken Arts Recordings, The Joe Snow Punk Rock Collection, and the Artists’ Book Collection.

“We looked at what we had, and started seeing connections between our collecting areas,” says Eshelman, curator of the Artists’ Book Collection, which includes more than 400 works where bookmaking techniques and visual art converge.

“When we think about collecting, we are often adding depth to collections of years ago. You can do that while the material exists. We started to think we might be missing something for a more contemporary time period.”

When they thought about the 1980s, none of the curators thought they had much from that period. Yet they discovered that the Artists’ Book material – along with the Alternative Press Collection, which included music publications and related materials, handled by Stinnett, and the Literary Collection, including recorded poetry and curated by Batt – converged in the ’80s and had much in common.

“Our goal for the exhibition was to look at the three distinct collections and sew them together as both a demonstration of the similarities in aesthetics from the 1980s but also the challenges presented in collecting ‘newer’ materials,” says Stinnett. “These selections were chosen because they were produced as an antithesis to mainstream consumption of art.”

Out of Frame - Studio New York Club Poster

The Artists’ Book material on display includes work created by students in the School of Fine Arts during the decade of the ’80s studying with art and art history professor Gus Mazzocca, now emeritus, who taught printmaking and lithography classes. The works include art reproductions of books by William S. Burroughs, and political satire of the Reagan Administration.

The Dial-A-Poem exhibit includes album covers from the recordings, as well as a telephone so visitors to the gallery can listen to recordings of Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman, and Burroughs reciting their poetry, often accompanied by music, in the tradition of the 1950s Beat Poets. Ann Charters, who donated the material, is a UConn emeritus professor of English and scholar of the Beat Generation writers from the post-World War II period, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Burroughs.

“These Dial-A-Poem recordings capture the collaborative work happening between poets and musicians, and feature well-known poets alongside emerging ones,” says Batt. “To see the Beats and poetry being performed and extended into the ’80s was something unexpected. It was kind of an ‘A-ha’ moment. We notice students today take an active interest in expression by students in the ’80s, well before the Internet.”

A column in the exhibit is plastered with reproduced posters advertising punk shows that took place in Connecticut venues, such as The Anthrax in Norwalk and Tip Toe Club in Bridgeport, by performers such as Misfits, Minor Threat, and Inside Out. Some of the music from the era can be heard using headphones connected to a boom box.

Out of Frame - Pogo Club Flyer

The punk rock materials are part of a new collecting area in the Alternative Press Collection, which demonstrates the fissures in 1980s urban and suburban youth culture. “The politics of the Punk subculture are in your face,” says Stinnett. “The tonal value of the music produced is rough and intentionally sloppy. The design of literature and ephemera is quick cheap and dirty. The point of punk rock was to create an art of resistance that was egalitarian and accessible … which makes this musical expression particularly relevant to the Alternative Press, because it always had a self-destruct button on hand in case the mainstream bought into it. Generally it sounds offensive, and that’s what makes it great.”

“Out of the Frame: Alternative Arts of the 1980s” continues through May 11 in the Center Gallery of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, 405 Babbidge Road, Storrs. Hours for the exhibition are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, go to the exhibition website.