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Make Me Famous, 2023© Gary Azon

New doc Make Me Famous blows open the 1980s New York art scene

Make Me Famous tells the story of the painter Edward Brezinski, and reveals much about the downtown art scene of this time, and its legendary figures

Basquiat. Haring. Wojnarowicz. New York’s downtown art scene of the 70s and 80s produced some of the art world’s biggest names, their lives and times well documented. But what does the iconic era look like through the lens of an artist who never made it?

Make Me Famous, a new documentary directed by Brian Vincent, tells the story of one Edward Brezinski: an intense and peculiar painter who ran in all the same circles as the scene’s legendary figures, but who, despite his unwavering pursuit of fame and acclaim, just couldn’t manage it.

The film is both an exploration of why, and an alternative portrait of the scene at large: one where Basquiat, Haring et al mill around in the background of archive footage rather than the foreground, and where stories of shoddy makeshift galleries, “starving artists,” and wild nights out at Club 57 and Max’s Kansas City are told through new and funny perspectives.

As the doc sees its UK theatrical release, we take a look at some of the things we learned about art, industry, and attempts to “make it” in downtown New York in the 70s and 80s.


It never made the canon of now-famed East Village sites, but Edward Brezinski’s Magic Gallery – which he ran out of his decrepit apartment opposite a men’s shelter on Third Avenue – epitomised what “the scene” was all about. That is, a bunch of passionate and impoverished art weirdos who were too rag-tag for SoHo, and so made their own.

Here, Brezinski showcased a mish-mash of mediums and mayhem: it was a place where David Wojnarowicz could do things that “no other gallery would let him do” (like staging desiccated corpses around a blood-soaked dinner table); where the writer and cultural critic Gary Indiana set himself on fire; where the famous poet Miguel Piñero did “intense” readings, and from where the gallerist and art dealer Annina Nosei – who discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat – once fled almost immediately upon arrival, so discomfited was she by its chaos and filth.


Such mediums may have been labours of love for East Village oddballs throughout the 70s, but “you couldn’t make money throwing wine in people’s faces or doing piano concerts in the nude,” says the writer and actor Eric Bogosian. “I was at Robert Mapplethorpe’s first sexual gallery show and he didn’t sell one piece.”

“That’s not what art dealers wanted; they wanted minimalism and earth works and plywood things,” adds the late artist Duncan Hannah, referencing the pared-back works of artists like Ellsworth Kelly or Donald Judd. (In fact, what Brezinski arguably became most famous for was a supposed protest against conceptual art later in 1989: he ate a doughnut that was on display at Robert Gober’s first major show in SoHo, professedly mistaking it for – well – just a doughnut, instead of $8,000 art. The donut had been treated with toxic resin, and Brezinski ended up in hospital.)

“To strive to be a painter [in the 70s] was suicide,” continues Hannah. But when Julian Schnabel started bringing home broken plates from his restaurant job and piecing them together as canvases for expressionist portraits in 1978 – fusing elements of conceptual art with 1950s abstract painting – renowned art dealer Bruno Bischofberger snapped them up.

“Painting came back with a vengeance,” says Hannah. “Suddenly, in the early 80s, to be a young painter was the perfect thing to be.” Galleries started popping up seemingly overnight: Civilian Warfare, New Math, FUN, and numerous others that – unlike Brezinki’s Magic Gallery – went on to achieve nostalgic cultural status.


There was plenty of talent flying around – but chance, timing, and the whims of gallerists and dealers played a big role. And likability and charisma probably didn’t go amiss, either. “Everybody kind of started out on the street,” says the painter Frank Holliday. “And then certain people became very successful. And it became very hierarchical.”

This is really the crux of Make Me Famous: less a bid to necessarily frame Brezinski as a long-lost genius than an exploration of how some members of a community managed to catapult to colossal fame and riches, while others were condemned to erasure.

In any case, a bitter and “angry” Brezinski deeply resented the short straw he drew. So much so that after gallerist Nosei (the one who discovered Basquiat) said she’d come to one of his shows, and then never turned up, he threw red wine over her at a SoHo opening and supposedly threatened to kill her.

It’s ironic that “starving” Brezinski actually foreshadowed one of the art world’s highest-grossing trends with a stencil show at the Magic Gallery. “Today, Banksy and Mr Brainwash are very expensive and celebrated and bought all over the world,” says artist Mark Kostabi. “Brezinski had his finger on the pulse way back in the 80s.”


Of course, we’re familiar with this widely-covered aspect of the era. But hearing artist Marguerite Van Cook’s accounts of people stabbing themselves through the heart, or impaling themselves on fence railings, after being diagnosed with AIDS is harrowing still.

Following the “condomless” years of free love, where to be on the scene meant to cavort around Limbo Lounge, Studio 54 and the Mudd Club without a care, “there was a period where, basically, the social scene was funerals,” says Kenny Scharf, solemnly. “Visiting people in hospitals.”

“By 1986, I had attended more funerals of friends than my parents had of their friends,” says the gallerist Patrick Fox.


When the likes of Koons and Haim Steinbach showed up in the East Village, the moment shifted to a type of art whereby “you couldn’t just find [stuff] in the garbage and put it together and paint on it,” says artist Robert Hawkins. “There wasn’t that appropriation that the poor East Village artists were doing.”

It was the kind of art you needed money to make and money to buy, and it served to reframe art as an inherent commodity – the antithesis of the East Village ethos (“The East Village shouldn’t be collected,” says the late Richard Hambleton, AKA the godfather of street art. “It should just be documented”).

Kostabi recounts the gallerist Jeffrey Deitch saying that the reason the likes of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Richard Prince are “more successful than artists who are just as good if not better… is that they are businessmen. They’re artists, but they’re also businessmen.”

Of course, capitalism did its thing. Rents escalated. By 1985, the neighbourhood’s seminal FUN Gallery was forced to close due to waning market interest, and by 1988, almost all of the East Village galleries that had popped up since 1980 had either moved to SoHo or Chelsea or closed.


When the prices of names like Basquiat, Keith Haring and Peter Hujar skyrocketed after their deaths between 1987-90, it’s no wonder other artists from the scene wondered “what if”. “Paintings I sold in 1982 for $5,000, like the ones of Jean Michel-Basquiat, are now sold at auction for $110 million,” says gallerist Nosei.

After the deaths of Haring and Basquiat, Kenny Scharf was struggling to sell anything. He owned a place in Brazil without electricity. “I thought, maybe I should just go there and say that I died.”

Scharf may be being facetious. But as the documentary draws to a close, we learn there is no death certificate for an Edward Brezinski; no records of a post-mortem in the French Riviera where he supposedly died in 2007, nor anyone, it seems, who can speak about his passing with certainty.

You’d have to be pretty eccentric to commit to faking your own death. But if there’s one thing you can take away from this doc, it’s that Edward Brezinksi was just that. So – was he posthumously recognised, and the price tags on his works inflated accordingly? Not exactly. But he is in the MoMA now. And he has a documentary to boot.

Make Me Famous premieres on February 17 at Bertha DocHouse in London, followed by a Q&A with artists David McDermott and Robert Hawkins. It will also be screening at the ICA.

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