| A Brief Tour of Eric Drooker's
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Begin at the corner of 14th Street and Avenue B, on the northern edge of Manhattan's Lower East Side. The neighborhood is one of New York City's most storied, a place where history is measured in conflicts and confrontations, and where the most lasting tradition is rebellion.
Admittedly, this dirty corner is an unlikely place for a walking tour to begin, but it happens to be the intersection where the artist Eric Drooker grew up. And the neighborhood shaped much of the work that he has gone on to produce: the bold street-poster prints, the stark scratchboard images that formed the novel-in-pictures Flood (an American Book Award winner in 1994), the elegiac gouache and watercolor paintings that appeared on New Yorker covers and in his 1996 collaboration with Allen Ginsberg, Illuminated Poems . Some of that work, in turn, has found its place in the struggle to shape the neighborhood's future.
Fourteenth street is really the dividing line between two worlds, says Drooker, a lean 38-year-old whose low-key conversational style belies a sharp wit. Growing up right on 14th street I saw a lot of just the contradictions. I would see homeless people- or bag ladies as we called them in those days-on the street, and I would see Cadillacs going by. I would see these social discrepancies at a pretty early age, before I was able to understand what it all meant. But I'm convinced that it must have affected me.
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Follow Avenue B south and you descend through a cross-section of Lower East Side history, steeped in hard-left politics. Emma Goldman lived on East 13th Street. The American Communist party had its headquarters on East 11th, and the International Workers of the World was based on East 4th. Drooker's maternal grandmother was born near 5th and B, and later counted herself (like her husband) a socialist; his mother taught at a public school on 11th Street and First Avenue.
When Drooker was about 12, his grandfather gave him some books by the politically progressive Belgian artist Frans Masereel, whose wordless woodcut novels from the first half of this century are often pointed to as an antecedent to the graphic novels of today. The young Drooker was interested-but at the time was somewhat more captivated by some early issues of R. Crumb's Zap! that he had stumbled across in a local bookshop.
When you've walked four blocks, you will find yourself at the northeast tip of Tompkins Square Park, the neighborhood's spiritual (if not geographic) center. On nice days, it's a festive gathering place, crowded with people playing soccer on the concrete, lounging on the grass, huddled around bongos. At other times, the crowds have been less joyous. As an art student at nearby Cooper Union, Drooker made agit-prop posters that decried police brutality and greedy real estate interests, and that advertised political gatherings of both protest and celebration in the park. He was working out his own politics, based more on direct experience than on academic studies.
While I was at Cooper Union I was just studying form, he says. I didn't expect to get a political education there-although Hans Hacke was one of my teachers. I usually kept it separate. In fact, while I was at Cooper Union I mostly did sculpture. But on the side I was doing these political posters and political narratives, in the form of comic strips, that I would put around the neighborhood either as posters or as little propaganda booklets. Very didactic, heavy-handed. Educating people about landlord terrorism, why you should organize with your fellow tenants and go on rent strike.
The park's most spectacular confrontation in recent years came in August 1988, when hundreds of police officers resorted to brute force to enforce a controversial curfew: an all-out riot ensued, as the throwing of bottles was met with the swinging of nightsticks. Drooker (well out of Cooper Union by then) evoked the debacle in a scratchboard depiction of a mounted policeman waving his truncheon over the heads of protesters. It's an obvious Guernica reference, he says. But that riot was kind of my Guernica. It was for a lot of people in the neighborhood, I think, to see that level of brutality right here.
The political demonstrations returned when the park reopened and continue now. On the back of Drooker's latest book, an anthology of his street work called Street Posters & Ballads of the Lower East Side (Autonomedia) is a photograph of him being arrested at a squatters-rights rally in 1996. He spent two nights in jails. I call this one, he says dryly, 'Portrait of the Artist Being Strangled By Police.'
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Walk east through the park, and continue for about half a block on 10th Street. Drooker moved into a building here, across the street from the Russian and Turkish Baths, in the fall of 1979, his freshman year at Cooper Union. After graduation, he supported himself by making and selling lapel buttons; meanwhile, he made political posters, and did occasional illustration work for The Guardian, People's Daily World, and others. He also contributed scabrous political caricatures to the sex newspaper Screw (signing them Dr. Ook). Over time, he got his work into The Village Voice, The New York Times op-ed page, and other venues, and he left the button business behind about eight years ago. By then he had begun a more ambitious project.
Flood I did gradually over six or seven years, says Drooker, who today lives on the same block, in a modest two-room apartment; a drafting table by the window serves as his studio. By then he had revisited Masereel with a more critical eye, had discovered the related work of Lynd Ward, had himself developed a scratchboard technique that resembles woodcuts or linocuts.
The first two chapters were self published, kind of like zines-type art books that I had done. The first chapter, 'Home,' was published as a little booklet that I put on the consignment rack at St. Marks [a local book store] and all over the place. And the second one, 'L,' was the same thing. And then 'L' got published in Heavy Metal magazine, which was kind of a coup-they actually paid me a few thousand dollars. It was shortly after that I got a call from [small publishing house] Four Walls Eight Windows, proposing that I do an entire novel in pictures with them. The timing was perfect.
He added a third, and far longer, chapter called Flood, breaking up the relentless black-and-white only with a stretch of deep blue in the this final section. (His mounted cop poster image worked its way into one sequence, and a number of other images from Flood were later used in posters-both his own and those of activists in the U.S. and Europe who Drooker encourages to borrow his work.) The book's publication in 1994 was a major breakthrough. When you look at it, technically, the drawing ability improves from the first chapter to the last, he says. The first chapter is kind of cartoonish. That's almost part of the story, that there's this stylistic progression.
I don't think there are too many examples of that, he muses. It would be interesting to read a novel that started out very crudely written-not intentionally, but as good as he novelist was able to write at the time: the grammar wasn't so good, the metaphors were corny-and over time the literary chops got better and better, and by the end it was in impeccable prose.
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Continue along 10th Street to First Avenue, and take a right. Three blocks north is the Mee Noodle Shop & Grill, an unremarkable Chinese restaurant favored by Allen Ginsberg, who often suggested to Drooker that the two of them meet there while illuminated Poems was taking shape.
Sitting at a table near the back, Drooker ponders the shift from the at-times grim imagery of Flood to the more vibrant work he started turning out over the last few years. I'm working in full color now, and I think you can see that the artist is in a happier state of mind. But it's hard to say why that is. Am I working in full color because I'm feeling better emotionally, or am I feeling better emotionally because I'm working with a full-color palette and that's cheering me up? It's hard to say.
These more recent, more subtle works found a showcase in a collaboration with Ginsberg that began after Drooker made a poetry benefit poster illustrating Ginsberg's The Lion For Real. In the Illuminated Poems, Drooker's sometimes dreamy, sometimes haunting paintings alternate with Ginsberg poems both notorious and obscure. At first glance, some of this work looks so distinct from the street posters and the edgy style of Flood, it's hard to link it to Drooker's past at all. But look past the obvious aesthetic differences and the same essential themes emerge-Drooker's unique, myth-tinged take on megalopolis life. As I look back over the stylistic change, you can see this trajectory: I was coming out of this very monochromatic, very black and white, kind of doctrinaire, stark, propagandistic, heavy-handed view of the world, to a more subtle, kind of nuanced expression of the range, the colorful range of experience. It's not just the politics.
Over the years, I've consciously tried to be more subtle in the work, to not make the work look like propaganda," says Drooker, who will soon begin work on another novel-length graphic work. I'm still very concerned with trying to persuade people of certain ideas, educate them. But I think I could be more effective if the propaganda doesn't look like propaganda.
• • •
Go south on First Avenue to St. Mark's Place, take a right, and walk two blocks to Cooper Union, home of the well-known art school. Downstairs in the granite-arched Great Hall, where founder Peter Cooper intended that the great issues of the day be discussed, a Halloween-night crowd has gathered to see Drooker's Picture Show! The slide-and-lecture presentation, interspersed with live music, drives home how central the artist's politics remain to his work.
After a smoothly presented slide adaptation of Flood, the evening shifts into a fairly freeform affair. Drooker riffs on the bible, steps aside for a guest rapper, raps himself, references the latest stock market rumblings, draws a few whoops from his sympathetic audience with a few shots at Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, runs through the street images that will be the center of his new book, and steps aside again for a folk singer. Lurking in the background is the more supple critique that Drooker has gradually fashioned, one that centers not just on obvious problems like greed and violence, but on what he sees as a sort of societal fear of the creatures living in our cities most culturally vibrant fringes. If there's no guided tour through the shadowy neighborhood Drooker inhabits, he seems to say, you'll simply have to find your own way.
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This story appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of World Art.