What Goes On: ‘The Velvet Underground Experience’ Exhibition Opens in New York

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Stephen Shore, Courtesy of the 303 Gallery New York

 

As rock and roll enters middle age, it’s understandable that its legacies are being mined not only for entertainment and profit, but also historical significance. For the most part – actually, always – originators of a particular art form are far more interesting than their progeny (Green Day are fine, The Clash were monumental); and it’s generally fascinating to revisit where it all began.

To wit, seeing the Rolling Stones communal London apartment at the Exhibitionism show last year; or Bowie’s first attempts at pushing sexual boundaries at the epochal David Bowie Is exhibit; and now, at last, returning to the original Factory with Lou Reed, John Cale and company, wishing we had been there.

The Velvet Underground Experience, a surely long overdue retrospective on possibly the most influential band ever after the Beatles and the Stones, has just opened in New York. Curiously, their main career arc lasted less than a decade; yet the artistic ramifications of their work are still reverberating today. There may be fewer outfits and album covers on display here, but it’s all just as fascinating as Bowie’s hairstyles and Keef’s guitars.

 

The Velvet Underground and Nico Cornell University, Division of Rare Manuscripts Collections

 

What makes the show so compelling is that its story is also a story about New York City, and how it all coincided with equally exciting movements in film, art, fashion and even the socio-political. From the late ’50s into the ’70s, groundbreaking written works from Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs collided with the rise of the Fluxus community of artists, LaMonte Young’s minimalists compositions, Andy Warhol‘s cinematic experimentations, casual but purposeful drug use…all while the Vietnam War raged, splitting the country apart ideologically. The Velvet Underground absorbed all of it and more, and rose to artistically match the anxieties of the time.

The VU Experience of course focuses significantly on band mastermind Lou Reed, including his turbulent childhood; co-founder John Cale, short-lived singer Nico, and the Warhol influence all feature prominently. And the hundreds of never-before-seen photos, new film works, and random ephemera retell the tale of perhaps the most original American rock band ever. In addition to what’s on display – in true Velvets form – there are also ongoing live performances and lectures in the well-appointed basement. And on Friday, October 26, the historic nightclub Café Wha? (where the band often performed) is showcasing a VU/Factory themed show, featuring local act Baldie doing covers of their most iconic tracks.

It’s often said that if The Velvet Underground sold half the records their influence suggested, they would have been one of the biggest bands in the world. Here’s the perfect opportunity to understand just how true that statement is.

 

Courtesy of the Nat Finkelstein Estate