Downtown Archæologies

“The Dungeon Series” Artifact Post

by Ava

A Sophistocated Terence Sellers
photo credit: Ava Solina
The Dungeon Series
Downtown Collection at the Fales Library

Terence Sellers Papers
Box 1, folder 425


terenceSellers  performanceArt 

“The Dungeon Series”, 1978-1979, Box 1, Folder: 425, Terence Sellers Papers MSS.167, Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

If there is one theme that has resonated with me through every part of the course material we have covered so far, it is that New York City is not what it once was. Manhattan was not always the thriving, bustling metropolis that it is today. The majority of the city was dirty, destitute, seedy, dangerous, and crime ridden. While certain areas of Manhattan are still like this, the majority of the city has changed, especially the areas in lower Manhattan such as Soho, Noho, Tribeca, and other areas below 14th street.

In the 60s, the Viet Nam War sparked resentment and skepticism against the government and the Watergate scandal certainly did not help instill any sort of confidence in the government. The combination of political corruption, the war, and distrust of the government were essentially killing the city, and the people in it. When Manhattan begged the government for a bailout, President Ford said no or in other words according to The Daily News: “Ford to City- Drop Dead.” A culture lost in drugs, alcohol, crime, and sex had formed and promoted new “norms.” People struggled to survive and get by and turned to anything they could, and for most women during the 70s and 80s this meant prostitution (JP).

Lower Manhattan was a central hub for prostitution and was where a young Terence Sellers spent most of her time as a dominatrix. She was known as Downtown Royalty for four decades, and while she did not label herself a prostitute, per se, men would pay her for sex and to dominate them (NEWS FROM THE JACKIE FACTORY). After reading over her journals and viewing some of her pictures, I gathered that by being a dominatrix instead of a prostitute, Sellers was able to maintain her dignity. She would not fall into the hands of abuse and control from men trying to take advantage of her. She chose her clients, acting as her own pimp, and chose when and where she did her work. Although I’m sure not all men respected her or treated her well, the goal was not submission on her behalf, thus, I believe she was embracing a more feminist culture ahead of her time.

I had the opportunity to view Sellers’ personal photos from a collection called “The Dungeon Series” in The Terence Sellers Papers. This collection was from 1978-1979 when she was in her mid to late twenties. She worked with photographer Jimmy DeSana who was an important figure in the punk art scene in the East Village. His photos focused on images of the human body, often times in extremely explicit and graphic manners. This was the type of art he and Sellers worked on together in “The Dungeon Series.”.

There were several things I found fascinating with in this binder. But what was most captivating was Sellers’ ability to totally transform herself from day to night. In some of the pictures, Sellers’ reminded me of a high class, wealthy, Upper West Sider who had a house in the Hamptons and frequented horse races in her leisure time. She looked extremely well kept, graceful, and sophisticated.

Sophistocated Sellers

Turn the page and you can see Sellers’ in one of her dominatrix outfits. What little material the outfit consisted of was made from all black leather, she would have a whip in one hand and would be dragging a man, with his hands and feet bonded, across what looks to be a public beach. It made me think about how could someone pull off two totally different people so well? I believe this was a common theme in New York at the time- people putting on acts pretending to be someone else whether it be for joy or for money.

Another Side of Sellers

No one would tell by looking at her that she was capable of these behaviors, but that was also a common theme in New York. People were going to their minimum wage jobs during the day and then going home to take off their work clothes and get ready to take the town by storm with drugs and alcohol, only to get up again the next day and do it all over again. Men who liked to dress up as women fled their oppressive and unaccepting homes to find comfort in a city where almost anything went. They gathered in clubs and found their community among people with similar stories in a place, the Lower East Side, where they were free to be anyone. By day they were normal workers and manual laborers trying to stay afloat, but by night they dressed in spectacular outfits, masked their faces with extravagant make up, and walked down a runway presenting their fiercest catwalks. By day, no one knew they could make such a transformation.

New York itself was a facade: to everyone else, it presented itself as a land of opportunity and the crossroads of the world. In reality, the crossroads of the world was really the cross roads for heroin from Asia, Marijuana from South America, and America’s cocaine. Sellers was putting up a front, like Manhattan, pretending to be something she was something she was not just for appearances and for her own benefit.

While observing Seller’s binder, I was also able to gain a sense of the art scene of downtown Manhattan in the 70s and 80s. During this time, art was undergoing a bit of a transformation. Everything and anything went in terms of art. Keith Haring’s use of lines to create masterpieces commented on social movements of the time. Graffiti was now a legitimate form of art and subway cars and building walls were now canvases covered in colorful words and images. The East Village was a haven for hipsters engulfed by the art scene. Jean Michel Basquiat gained attention for his graffiti style work in the Lower East Side under the name of SAMO (Hudson). Sellers was no exception. In “The Dungeon Series,” Sellers’ style was new, provocative, and sometimes shocking. Like the other up and coming artists, Sellers and DeSana challenged previous conceptions of what “art” was through her open and provocative photos. Because of this, she helped to shed light on a new era of modern art.

In “The Dungeon Series,” Sellers and DeSana created, and thus promoted, art that was viewed as “anti art” during this time because it was so different and deviated from previous conceptions of what “art” was. Sellers helped to pave the way for more forms of modern art and modern artists. It is collections like “The Dungeon Series” that shed light on how art did not have to be limited to specific genres, styles, and concepts. Terence Sellers work opened up a new conversation about art and sparked people to ask, “well, what is art?”