In 1978 Punk Magazine was king of the roost when it came to the concept of punk art. It was the magazine's willingness to participate in our exhibition that gave the show legitimacy and encouraged all the other artists to get involved. Yet from the perspective of the traditional art world, Punk barely existed. The magazine’s roots lay far from Soho; its birthplace was suburban Connecticut where it was first conceived by three high school teenagers, John Holmstrom, Legs McNeil, and G. E. Dunn in 1975. John was the editor and cartoonist; Legs was the magazine's "Resident Punk;" and Dunn was the short-lived publisher. Part music fanzine and part comic book, the boys of Punk were not concerned about art; they just wanted to have fun, meet girls and get free admission into the clubs in New York.
Following their favorite rock group, The Dictators to CBGB, Punk quickly established its place in the emerging scene. From the very first issue, the magazine embodied its unique style. Articles about bands alternated with cartoons, references to TV culture, and features bristling with rebellious teen attitude. Historians can argue over who first coined the term "punk rock," but there is little doubt that it was Punk Magazine that fleshed out the term and linked it with the music at CBGB. John and Legs were unapologetically low brow. They loved rock 'n roll and hated pretentious "crap." But in fact they represented a new avant-garde, young media-saturated artists turned off by an overly intellectual art scene seeking new audiences by embracing commercial and popular art.
Legs McNeil thought of the word punk... 'cause it kind of described what he is... where he was... he was eighteen or nineteen when we started it. Legs at the time was really a punk. Every time we would go into a bar... he would get thrown out... he'd get drunk all the time... start fights... he didn't own anything of his own... he still just sleeps over at people's houses... he's directionless... you know, he's your archetypal punk.
- John Holmstrom
John Holmstrom was the friendly face of Punk, the person at the magazine whom people trusted, and the one they hoped could control its unpredictable "resident punk," Legs McNeil. Deep down, John was a comic-book fan who came to New York to study cartooning at the School of Visual Arts. One of his teachers was Harvey Kurtzman the founding editor of Mad Magazine. Another hero was R. Crumb the king of the underground comix of the 1960s. It was Holmstrom who gave Punk its comic-book look with his cartoon covers and insistence on using hand lettering instead of type for most of the magazine's articles. Holmstrom had a special eye for cartoon lettering that is reflected in the magazine's distinctive logo, and in creatively lettered, all-word features like "The Top 100." His own cartoons were sharp and edgy. They were featured on the covers of two Ramones albums, in an education supplement published by the Village Voice, and frequently in High Times where Holmstrom was an editor.
I found that most humor comes from degrading people, humiliating them. Most of it is based on pain. The funniest cartoons I do are the ones where I inflict the most pain on my characters. That's just what life is about. I base my cartoons on my life. Whatever horrible things happen to me, I turn into a cartoon.
- John Holmstrom
It was easy to underestimate Legs McNeil, especially in the late 1970s when he liked to drink and play very close to the edge. As the magazine's "resident punk," Legs led the way creating the "fun" and mayhem that was the distinctive style of the magazine. He certainly knew how to make himself the center of the action and Punk dutifully chronicled his antics in features like "Cars and Girls – Legs on the Prowl!" and "Legs – An Evening of Lust."
Legs is also credited as the writer and director of "The Legend of Nick Detroit," an ambitious group effort that transformed an entire issue of Punk into an elaborate photo novella starring top musicians and scene makers from CBGB. The success of the feature led to a second Punk photo novella, "Mutant Monster Beach Party" starring Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry and Andy Warhol.
Legs' genius for attracting attention was fully on display at the Punk Art show. Inspired by the show's Washington D.C. location he composed a "Punk Manifesto" that began with the lines "There is no rock and roll in Russia, there is no artistic freedom, there is no McDonalds." He took up the Russian theme again a week after the opening attracting serious media attention when he stormed the Soviet embassy with a gang of punks throwing McDonald hamburgers. Legs is now a successful writer, most notably of Please Kill Me, The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1997).
Roberta Bayley was a photographer with close connections to the musicians at CBGB. During the informal early years of the club, Roberta sometimes collected money at the door on behalf of her musician friends. When she was hired by CBGB owner Hilly Kristal to do the job full-time, she moved to the heart of the scene, always handling with diplomatic ease the difficult task of determining who was allowed in for free and who was charged admission. For the naturally talented Bayley photography was an avocation, something she initially did for fun and as a favor for musician friends who needed pictures for publicity. Many of Roberta's pictures were for Punk Magazine, where she soon earned the title of photo editor and distinguished herself as the magazine's most reliable photographer.
Bayley had a low-key approach to photography, working closely in collaboration with musician subjects who were usually good friends. During a photo session for Punk Magazine, Bayley photographed the Ramones against a graffiti-covered brick wall in the alley outside of CBGB. A picture from the session was used as the cover of the Ramones' first album and is still the best-known portrait of the group. Working both in color and black-and-white, Bayley took memorable pictures of Richard Hell, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop and many others central to the early history of Punk.
Arturo Vega was a celebrity amongst the group of artists that Punk Magazine encouraged to participate in the Punk Art show in Washington D.C. As the "art director" of the Ramones, Vega had a key role in the creation of the visuals that were an integral part of the group's identity. His taste for heraldic designs perfectly complemented the Ramones' bad-boy image and the military precision that characterized their music and stage act.
Vega's most famous creation was the Ramones' eagle logo based on the Great Seal of the United States. By substituting the words "Hey Ho Lets Go" for the Latin phrase "e pluribus unum," and exchanging a baseball bat for the arrows in the eagle's talons, Vega created a logo that was both aggrandizing and funny. The seal served as the backdrop for the Ramones' stage set, its effect enhanced by a dramatic lighting scheme that Vega loosely adapted from Albert Speer's "cathedral of light."
The logo was also used with many variations on the group's T-shirts designed and marketed by Vega. During the early years of the group, the sale of the T-shirts often rivaled the sale of records, underscoring the important role that Vega’s visuals played in the group's popularity. His successful intermixing of art, music and commerce served as a model for many of the artists in the Punk Art exhibition.
As a founder of the rock group Blondie, Chris Stein had a major impact on the music scene at CBGB. With his partner Debbie Harry, Stein co-wrote many of the group's tunes and helped formulate the smart, fashionable, sexy persona that lay at the heart of Blondie's success. Before turning to music, Chris had studied photography at the School of Visual Arts and his interest in taking pictures continued in conjunction with his music career. The early issues of Punk featured many of Stein's pictures that first introduced the cartoon-like image of Debbie Harry as a hip, modern temptress poised to seduce the world. There is much in Stein's photography that reflects the techniques and lessons of commercial advertising and marketing. Yet his pictures also exude the knowing irony and detachment characteristic of fine art photography. Stein has recently posted a website called "Red Night," emphasizing his photography.
Born and raised in Japan, Screaming Mad George moved to New York in the late 1970s and quickly attracted attention as both an artist and musician. It was as a student at School of Visual Arts that he first connected with Punk where he published surrealist-inspired drawings some of which were included in the Punk Art show in Washington DC. Screaming Mad George's particular style was evident not only in his drawings and paintings but also in the extremely theatrical performances of his rock group The Mad. Using heavy make-up and special effects, performances climaxed in orgies of blood and gore involving castration and disembowelment.
After the Punk Art show closed, Screaming Mad George and The Mad performed at a one-night, multi-media Punk Art symposium that Bettie Ringma and I organized at the School of Visual Arts (November 1978). George's talent for theater has become a main focus of his work. His company SMG Effects provides special effects, makeup and prosthetics for movies, music videos, television and print.
I'm making this style for myself, which I call Anti-Realism. I use a realistic technique, but the thing is totally anti-real. It's very close to Dali's "paranoiac critical" style but different. I don't like real violence, but I like created violence, show violence, like in the movies. You can enjoy fake violence even if it's a really, really horrible thing. But I don't like violence when it's real. I don't like anything that is real.
- Screaming Mad George
Video of concert at Max's Kansas City, NY, 1979.
M. Henry Jones' intense, stroboscopic film of the Fleshtones performing "Soul City" was a late addition to the Punk Art show taking the wall originally reserved for Tom Otterness' "Shot Dog Film." Henry was a good example of the way young students at the School of Visual Arts in the 1970s helped fuel the rise of Punk as both a visual and musical phenomenon. The animated film was a by-product of his friendship with another SVA student, Peter Zarember of the Fleshtones. The intensely labourious project was a legend at the school. Created frame by frame, the animation involved cutting out hundreds of still photos with an Exacto knife and handtinting. Jones was still working on the film when it was shown at the Punk Art show.
The School of Visual Arts' role in Punk was showcased in the one-night, multi-media Punk Art symposium we organized in the school's amphitheater in November. In addition to presentations by former and current students, John Holmstrom, Screaming Mad George and Henry Jones, among the audience were Keith Haring and other SVA students who would soon form the East Village performance space Club 57. M. Henry Jones continues to produce animated films at his East Village studio/store SnakeMonkey.
M. Henry Jones, 1977