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Artist and Photographer Clayton Patterson’s
Five Essential Downtown New York Creators
By Michael Kaminer
in: BARRON'S PENTA, New York on Aug. 7, 2020

Clayton Patterson portrait
Artist and Photographer Clayton Patterson.Photo by Julian Voloj

The graphic-novel format suits artist, photographer, and videographer Clayton Patterson’s new biography. The 71-year-old’s wild life, and indescribable career, might barely seem plausible in any other form.

Clayton: Godfather of Lower East Side Documentary (Permuted Press) refracts Patterson’s ride—small-town Calgary boy to downtown doyen—through the eyes of 17 artists. Its title comes from the late Anthony Bourdain, who bestowed the moniker on Patterson in a 2018 “Parts Unknown” profile. Author and photographer Julian Voloj, who befriended Patterson a decade ago, wrote the text.

“I’ve lived the American dream, and I’ve had an amazing life,” says Patterson, who moved to New York in 1979. “But you could never be me again. You need huge money just to buy a studio apartment in New York now.”

Patterson’s footprints criss-cross New York’s alt-culture history. Long before “citizen journalism” came into vogue, Patterson famously documented Manhattan’s 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots. His books and images conjure vanished drag, punk, and even Jewish milieus. He earned the trust of gang members, drug addicts, and assorted outlaws as he recorded their lives. And in the 1980s, Patterson mentored a Chinese newcomer named Ai Wei Wei, now a world-famous artist. “He wanted to meet Ginsberg and Warhol, but he made the mistake of meeting people like me,” Patterson jokes.

Patterson has also chronicled a relentlessly gentrifying Lower East Side, often from the doorstep of the Essex Street building he shares with his wife, artist Elsa Rensaa. “Cheap rent and an inexpensive lifestyle let you create. Immigrants create things—they’re like a new gene pool. Wealthy people’s kids don’t produce anything great,” Patterson says. “The history of New York City has always been gentrification followed by something that knocks it down, whether it’s World War I or the 1970s or the 1987 crash, and coronavirus might be one of those moments.” To create the new biography, Voloj had to overcome Patterson’s resistance to graphic novels, with their often-plodding production timetables. “I’m 71. My wife’s 74, and she has Alzheimer’s. I know I’m playing the endgame. I told Julian that I’m too old to wait for someone to draw my life. But he pulled it off with 17 artists in less than two years,” Patterson says.

To make sure the book reflected his vision—literally—Patterson tapped local creative collective Jump Into the Light, to embed an augmented-reality video interview on the book’s cover.

For Penta, Patterson picked five essential downtown artists to explore. “The struggle is a big part of the story for all of these people,” he says. “Struggle is part of what makes great art. And huge ambition.”

Boris Lurie. “Boris was a Holocaust survivor and a fascinating person. Before he became an artist, he made about $80 million on Wall Street. He founded the [radical avant-garde anti-art-establishment] NO!art movement movement in 1959. I’m not a joiner, but he convinced me to be part of his group. Boris hated Andy Warhol, who lived across the street from him. He called Warhol’s work ‘theft. He wanted art perceived for its cultural value, not its market value.”

Angel "LA2" Ortiz. “LA2’s struggle and history make him important to me. He was a young Puerto Rican kid who came to me for help. He had joined the Keith Haring circus at 15. Keith had the barking dog and the radiant baby. But it’s graphics, not fine art. LA2 created the fill-ins. Those little symbols in Keith’s work are LA2’s signatures. Keith and LA2 were a collaboration, and people don’t talk about their work that way. LA2 was not just the help. The art establishment has shafted him.”

Jerry Pagane. “Jerry’s one of the toughest guys I know. He’s always been a runt. He was a preemie. He was abandoned. He has no ears. He went through orphanages. He had the hardest road possible, but he found a way to survive and make a serious contribution. He became a sign painter. But it’s his art that’s incredible. Images like firemen saving babies—I think that’s him, overcoming hardship. The human spirit comes through. He needs to be discovered.”

Jim Power. “Jim came out of Vietnam. He’s crazy, but ambitious. He took it on himself to make the Lower East Side beautiful by putting mosaics all over public spaces—lampposts, telephone poles. Several of us were able to save seven of those poles around Astor Place from [then-Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani. They’re not permanent artworks, but there’s no question they’re art, just like there’s no question Gaudi’s work is art. It’s Jim’s way of dealing with his difficulties.”

Elsa Rensaa.“Elsa’s my wife. Her paintings are remarkable—they’re acrylic, but people think they’re oils. The Calder Foundation bought one. She’s technically very good. She worked for a printing company; she’s a chromist, the person who hand-colors prints and lithographs. Elsa’s always been a recluse, so she was happy with me getting the public persona. But Clayton is really Clayton and Elsa.”


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