The Mudd Club, Max’s and CBGB are long gone, but the Kitchen—that performance space where so many stars of the avant-garde got their start—endures. Since its founding in 1971, the nonprofit has been an important part of the downtown art scene. At its annual gala on Monday, the organization honored two influential artists who had appeared at the Kitchen in the 1970s and ‘80s: Velvet Underground cofounder John Cale and pioneering conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner.
All the guests spoke passionately about the ideals behind the space. “I'm part of the whole generation that started here,” said artist Robert Longo. “Without the Kitchen, I wouldn't be here. It's a place for experimenting, a place where you can fail in public.”
LCD Soundsystem singer James Murphy sounded an even more reverential note. “It's part of the New York that I grew up loving and wanting to move to," he said. "It continues to be a home for the artists I've grown to associate with New York, and a place for exciting new work in a city where those things are having a hard time surviving.”
But behind all the tributes was a barely-concealed lament for a defunct culture. Though the artists, musicians and assorted moneymen toasted the avant-garde, the event felt more like a backwards-looking, slightly mournful celebration of the most cutting-edge artists of 1976. "I met Lawrence almost 50 years ago at Max's Kansas City, a bar on Park Avenue South where we all went," went a typically wistful line from Joan Jonas as she introduced Weiner.
Even relative youngster Murphy waxed elegiac as he honored Cale. Saluting “One of the constellations in [his] musical and artistic night sky,” the musician admitted to an entire career spent badly imitating things Cale had done 40 years earlier.
Weiner and Cale were far less nostalgic. Cale, his voice breaking up, talked about the role that music had played in his life, and thanked "the most inspiring group of artists in New York City” for the award.
Weiner gave a fiery speech condemning an increasingly close-minded art world. "We don't need to resist people with abhorrent or racist or sexist views” he said. “These are not our parents—we’re supposed to be making a culture!"
The night also featured performances by Jonathan Richman, Joan As Police Woman and Yemen Blues. Other patrons in attendance included Cindy Sherman, Charles Atlas, Laurie Anderson, Kiki Smith, Joan Jonas, Jonathan Richman, Melissa Schiff Soros, Kathryn Bigelow, Todd Snyder, Charlotte Feng Ford and Mike and Sukey Novogratz.