BY STEPHEN DiLAURO | Brilliance, consistency and confidence of vision aren’t always as widely recognized during an artist’s lifetime as they sometimes should be. The reasons for this are irrelevant. Some artists fall outside any orthodoxy or recognized group. Ed Higgins (E.F. Higgins III) was such an artist.
Higgins, who died this past December at age 72, lived in his rent-controlled apartment on Ludlow Street since his 1976 arrival in Manhattan. He was a founder of the Lower East Side’s avant-garde Rivington School movement, a disparate group of artists known for their sculpture gardens. Higgins also inspired a number of artists to try their hands at mail art.
The current exhibition at Van Der Plas Gallery, at 156 Orchard St., honors Higgins’s memory and vision in a way that did not happen during this artist’s lifetime. His work always seemed to be shunted into some dark corner. Higgins was himself known to say that he only cared that his art communicated with other mail artists.
The gallerist Adriaan Van Der Plas is keeping alive the art flame that was kindled in the 1980s Downtown art scene. Artists such as Higgins, Al Diaz, Brian Gormley, Anthony Zito and others are exhibited there regularly, in solo and group exhibitions. The overview of Higgins art that Van Der Plas presents is vibrant and brimming with power and personality. The clarity and Higgins’s deserved place in art history will be readily evident to any museum curator or collector who takes the time to look.
The same counterculture influences — nudes of amply endowed women, firecrackers and psychedelic hues — that infused the output of underground comic book artist R. Crumb can also be found here in the show Van Der Plas has chosen to title “Doo Da Forever!” (Doo Da was a refrain Higgins employed through the years; www.doodapost.com is the artist’s extant Web site, and a great jumping-off point for anyone wanting to learn more about mail art.) To Van Der Plas, and others, Ed Higgins was the “uncrowned king of mail art.”
In addition to the Rivington School movement, Higgins was an eager participant in other community art collaboration. I first met him when he was the auctioneer at the auction conducted to raise “penis dollars,” created by Anita Steckel for the Plexus Purgatorio art opera “Eve” staged at C.U.A.N.D.O. on lower Second Avenue in 1986.
“Eve” was a massive, spectacular collaboration with the Butch Morris Orchestra, a corps de ballet and a couple hundred East Village and other artists under the direction of Sandro Dernini, founder of Plexus. (Yours truly served as impresario.) Amongst all this talent and effort, Higgins managed to stand out while fitting right in.
There is a wonderful catalog that accompanies the current exhibit. Enjoy the photos shared here. But, please, if it’s at all possible, find your way down to the Lower East Side and experience this show before it closes on June 12. There was so much in the 1980s art scene that was often described with the phrase, “You had to be there.” “Doo Da Forever!” revives this spirit. It is more than an art show. It is an art historical event.
DiLauro is a playwright and critic. His “River Tales,” heard on a couple hundred public radio stations during the 1990s, are now on streaming platforms everywhere.