ABC No Rio Dinero: The Story of a Lower East Side Art Gallery
Edited by Alan Moore and Marc Miller
New York: ABC No Rio with Collaborative Projects, 1985
Many of the artists who showed at No Rio had a political agenda and wanted to promote the improvement of social conditions with their art. Some reached out to the poverty-stricken No Rio neighborhood seeking to find ways in which art could make a difference. Jody Culkin brought to No Rio her experience creating mazes with Jane Dickson and local children in the South Bronx. Her exhibition "Tube World" was the first to connect No Rio with the nearby elementary school PS 20. PADD sought to initiate change through exhibitions that raised consciousness about specific political issues. "Not for Sale" dealt with many of the same issues confronted at the "Real Estate Show," while "Artist's Call" was part of a national protest against Ronald Reagan's policies in Latin America.
A talk with Jody Culkin
With the help of neighborhood kids, Tube World and Forest Avenue Maze transformed a leaky Lower East Side storefront and a barren brick school courtyard in the Bronx into constantly changing magical places. I think that getting kids involved in building projects is one of the most direct ways to reach beyond the traditional art audience into the community.
The Forrest Avenue Maze (FAM) came out of Jane Dickson's City Maze" project at Fashion/Moda in the Bronx. A kid in the junior high school at Forrest Avenue asked the principal, and it took about a year to get it set up with the school. Walls of black plastic were hung over steel construction scaffolding. The artists-Jane Dickson, Justen Ladda, Peter Fend, Sandy Seymour, Eva de Carlo and me, Jody Culkin-painted a tiny bit and then the kids took over...
The FAM was a real group effort...It gave kids a chance to work with artists, and there was a real exchange. We all had our ideas about what we wanted to do, and they would tell us what they wanted to do, so it went back and forth. Tube World was also like that. I'd been making these tube sculptures for awhile. It was an exchange: I had this thing I was interested in doing, and the kids could come in and do what they wanted within certain limits. They had to use tubes, cardboard and wood. There were certain tools that I use all the time, and that they used-glue gun, miter saw, jigsaw...
It gave me a whole new way of looking at what I did by seeing it through the kids' eyes. Both of these projects were done in really poor neighborhoods, ghetto areas. I saw everything that I was doing in a completely different light, because it meant something different to them; that was the major thing that I feel I got out of it.
The kids got to have a lot of fun. The kids who worked on the maze took it over as their space, and an artists’ gang within the school started patrolling the maze as its turf. They would take all the other kids from the school around and show them and scare them.
Tube World was the same-they had a place to go with their art teacher, Hannah Gruenberg, who was involved with the project after school. It's not like these kids have a lot of activities, particularly around No Rio. A lot of them are totally on their own and their parents don't pay any attention, and others, their parents watch them and don't let them hardly go out at all. So here was this activity that they could go and do with their classmates.
In Tube World they were making their own toys out of junk-these cardboard tubes that would be thrown away. They were painting and making airplanes and cars and all these things that they would take home and play with. Someone made a camera. Maria and Raymond Acosta, who live upstairs from No Rio, took everything home, and their parents made them throw the things out. But then someone picked them out of the garbage right away!
By Hannah Gruenberg, 1982
In the morning I ride toward the sun rising at the end of Houston Street. The light silhouettes everyone in the front of the bus. We ride past the Volunteers of America where homeless men are changing their clothes on the sidewalk, leaving last week's bargain pants lying in doorways in crumpled filthy heaps. Some are already accosting motorists with windex bottles and rags for tips, or mostly for abuse. We ride past the late risers and those already drunk. At Second Avenue the whores are at work. Seven-thirty in the morning and there they are, indefatigable, dressed like you or me in blue jeans and tops, their little bags slung over their shoulders, looking shamelessly vulnerable. Orchard Street is still asleep. Only a few Puerto Rican-owned grocery stores are open, and the bakery. At Essex Street I get off. There are a few early children with their mothers coming for breakfast which won't start until eight. I am at P.S. 20, Essex and Houston Street on the Lower East Side.
"Oh Mommy, it's the art teacher!" "I forgot my smock, Mrs. Gruenberg." "Can we do clay today?" "Look Mommy, it's the art teacher." The children of P.S. 20 are varied in their backgrounds. Most are Puerto Rican or from Santo Domingo. Many are from Taiwan or mainland China. An increasing number are from Bangladesh. Some are from Mexico---one or two are Korean. There are a few black Americans and a couple of white Americans. There are 750 children all together and except for the kindergarteners, I see each of them once a week.
...Unlike children in more "well-to-do" neighborhoods these children have had almost no exposure to the making of art. They are not precocious, yet they bring an untainted richness of purpose to the art room that almost becomes precosity as they acquire the skills they need to communicate. They bring their backgrounds with them to the studio.
They bring a sense of color and order with them that is in their bodies. When I watch a table at which there is a Puerto Rican child, a Bangladeshi child and a Chinese child all approaching the same project, their personal riches are startlingly clear.
Teaching art at P.S. 20 is as good an antidote for tired eyes jaded by too much Soho and 57th Street as I have every found.
...I work for a privately funded grant called A Studio in A School Association, which despite its cumbersome name, is effectively getting real art exposure into the public schools. There are some 21 artists, some with full-time, some part-time residencies, working in schools in all the boroughs of New York City. My work as an artist has changed significantly since I started teaching here. These children have reached me and affected me deeply. Any high horse I used to ride has been shot dead from under me. I have no time for easy cleverness.
At No Rio last year, with the pipes dripping constantly on our heads, I worked with Jody Culkin on Tube World. Some of my students from P.S. 20 came with me each afternoon and I had the pleasure of working with them-not as their teacher, but as a fellow artist. The kids are still talking about that project. There was a mystery to it partly because of the environment---their neighborhood. The weather was getting really cold; outside it was nearly dark by six o'clock. Jody burned a fire in the makeshift grate in the back of the shadowed room while water fell into buckets arranged around the floor. It was damp and un-prepossessing. Not just in spite of, but maybe assisted by these dank environs, Jody made a place of light and humor and occasionally of beauty and magic.
Directly following Tube World, painter Julia Allard produced the Shadow Show, working with Hanna Gruenberg and her elementary school art students. Children and artists alike painted silhouette portraits of themselves and each other by manipulating a light to cast shadows on paper taped to the wall. As the show progressed, the gallery became filled from floor to ceiling with shadow portraits, and Allard began to make shadow puppets on sticks with the kids. The show climaxed with a performance of the German folk tale, "The Brementown Musicians" staged for an audience of parents and artists.
Organized by painter Neddi Heller, Suburbia signified No Rio's ambiguous position as an enclave of Anglo artists in a hispanic community. Like Heller, brought up in Long Island, many of the young artists on the Lower East Side are products of suburbia. Works in the show both satirized and sentimentalized this post-war cradle of American family values: Conrad Skinner constructed a swooping ramp covered with a layer of living grass, which he watered daily; Mike Bidlo showed a construction depicting a doll-sized room containing a mammoth-scale television set.
The Suburbia Show was a sincere reflection of the middle class artist's childhood, yet the theme provoked criticism from politically conscious artists who felt No Rio should present work related to urban problems and the indigenous population, who in truth, the young Anglo artists are slowly replacing. By chance, a series of break-ins and fires, initiated by neighborhood pushers who wanted to use the floors above No Rio for drug trafficking, heightened the siege atmosphere of the artists doing Suburbia. Frustrated by the deteriorating conditions and lack of support, Heller called in the press, and in an open meeting, the conflicts inherent in running an art space in a disadvantaged neighborhood came into focus.
By Richard Goldstein, Village Voice, January 25, 1983
Organized by painter Neddi Heller, Suburbia signified No Rio's ambiguous position as an enclave of Anglo artists in a Hispanic community. Like Heller, brought up in Long Island, many of the young artists on the Lower East Side are products of suburbia. Works in the show both satirized and sentimentalized this post-war cradle of American family values: Conrad Skinner constructed a swooping ramp covered with a layer of living grass, which he watered daily; Mike Bidlo showed a construction depicting a doll-sized room containing a mammoth-scale television set.
The Suburbia Show was a sincere reflection of the middle class artist's childhood, yet the theme provoked criticism from politically conscious artists who felt No Rio should present work related to urban problems and the indigenous population, who in truth, the young Anglo artists are slowly replacing.
By chance, a series of break-ins and fires, initiated by neighborhood pushers who wanted to use the floors above No Rio for drug trafficking, heightened the siege atmosphere of the artists doing Suburbia. Frustrated by the deteriorating conditions and lack of support, Heller called in the press, and in an open meeting, the conflicts inherent in running an art space in a disadvantaged neighborhood came into focus.
..."It's like people don't respect the work," says Neddi Heller, who curated the show; but that was the least of her problems. Over the weekend, someone started a trash fire in the hall, blowing out the lights and phone in the gallery. A day later, burglars stole a TV set and Mixmaster that had been used as installation props, and a few days after that, two paintings by young artists were stolen in a second break-in. Left untouched was the most valuable object in the room: a landscape by Les Levine.
"It's most likely junkies," says Howland. "After the fire, this is a marked building." Indeed, Rivington Street supports one of the city's livelier drug markets. On a visit last Sunday afternoon, I saw addicts staggering out of the tenements, and thirty men converge on several dealers, while cries of "blanco, blanco" rang out in the street. Some artists suggested that the fire had been set to empty the building; two of the three families who live there left after the blaze. "For them," says Bobby G, who often works in the space, "the fire was like the last straw."
...Heller plans to hold a benefit for the artists whose work was ripped off. In the future, she thinks she might prefer to show at CHARAS, a community-run space on East 8th Street. "It's better protected," she insists, "and there's a lot more going on." For Bobby G, that would be no great loss. "My first impulse when I heard about this show was, 'It's gonna be broken into," he says. "It ignored the community, and it was sort of an affront."
Organized by a committee of PADD, Not for Sale addressed the gentrification issue in the Lower East Side. In order to reach a broader audience, the show was mounted in two locations, El Bohio, a former public school near Tompkins Square Park, and No Rio near Delancy Street. These locations were appropriate to the theme in that El Bohio is managed by CHARAS, a political and cultural organization that arose from the Latino population most affected by displacement; No Rio grew out of the Real Estate Show three years earlier. Sensitive to the role that art galleries play in the gentrification process, the Not For Sale committee repeated the theme a year later as a street poster "anti-exhibition" called Out of Place: Art for the Evicted.
By Lucy R. Lippard, Village Voice, June 14, 1983
A graffiti on Suffolk Street reads: "20 Families Live Here!! Don't Kick Them Out. Where Do We Go From Here?" Olivia Beens's installation, which is half the NFS show at No Rio, might be illustrating that line. Her accompanying text about her own victimization and experience homesteading a utilityless building abandoned for some 50 years, ends: "I wondered who lived inmy apartment before me. I found pieces of life a long time ago, but no answers. Perhaps they moved on to a bigger and better apartment... I want to know where they go for I am certain to follow unless some changes are made." She papered the walls with housing forms and built her assemblage from objects found in her apartment--one of which is a charming old photo of a little boy in a tux which, oddly, was taken at ABC No Rio many years ago when it was a photographer's shop.
Beens's piece not only exposes the plight of the truly poor artist and single mother, but also calls attention to the layers of history of the Lower East Side.
In the mid '70s, artist Charles Simonds, with an architect and neighborhood group, projected a tenement museum in Loisaida devoted to the various immigrant waves, with a live-in caretaker from the community and a top floor of local flora and fauna spilling down over the bare brick side. Such grass roots history will be buried by the developers' paradises, as Adam Purple's lovely 'Garden of Eden" on Eldridge Street is threatened by "renewal."
The Lower East's history is embedded in every tenement, brick, sheet of tin, and gaping burned-out window. It is a history of the failures of capitalism and the ruinations of Reagonomics. There are blocks dedicated to the sale and consumption of hard drugs, with crowds of dazed men, children lined up in military formation for their fix; and blocks that offer window-boxed prosperity, health food stores, funky art galleries and cafes.
Yet once you've lived in Loisaida, it's hard to kick a certain tenderness for it. I remember coming home from trips, to the garbage-littered streets of Avenue D, and feeling a great surge of incongruous affection that didn't disappear when I came up and across in the world to the Bowery, Grand Street, Prince Street, in the heart of the art redlight district.
The NFS show won't change the momentum of greed, but its reflection of this unique urban reality in all its contradictions offers a microcosm of New York, maybe the world. Stay tuned to see if Loisaida will become hope's graveyard, marked by the tombstones of progress--high art, high rise, highfinance; or whether it will hold out for cultural, political and economic democracy--a magic pot that won't inch down.
Local graffiti: A Fuera Speculadores. Unification Not Gentrification. Gentry-No Entry. (Excerpts)
Artists Call is a national organizing effort started by New York artists concerned with the United States encroachment in Central American affairs. Artists sought to sway public opinion through work in all media exhibited in 20 cities and in 30 locations in New York City alone. The Artists Call exhibit at No Rio featured organizer Paul Smith's paintings and photo collages of Guatemalan scenes.
By Lucy R. Lippard, Upfront, Winter 1983-84
Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America is a nationwide mobilization of artists and intellectuals organizing out of New York City in collaboration with the Institute for the Arts and Letters of El Salvador in Exile. A major series of exhibitions and events will take place around January 22,1984---the International Day of Solidarity with El Salvador. The date marks the 52nd anniversary of the 1932 massacre which began the systematic destruction of Salvadorean indigenous culture. Today, such destruction is actively underway in Guatemala, undermining the resurrection of Nicaraguan culture, and threatening the Caribbean.
ARTISTS CALL will bring together art from Central America, art about Central America, and art in support of Central America. It is taking place in over 20 cities across the U.S. and Canada, including Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Boston, Houston, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, and Halifax. The idea is not only to oppose the Reagan administration's disastrous military policies, but to raise money to send to Central America, to raise consciousness among the cultural communities, and to make visible artists' outrage.
By Lucy Lippard and Daniel Flores y Ascensio, Cultural Democracy, Spring, 1984
...The very existence of ARTISTS CALL reflects changing historical conditions. The last time such expansive artists' actions took place was during the Vietnam war, but due to the distance (class and cultural as well as geographical) and the ultimate (racist) "foreignness" of Indochina, there was virtually no direct contact between North American and Vietnamese artists. The artists' support and protest were aimed straight (if naively) at the political situation, though not much of the art actually addressed it. Many Americans learned from their own experience the significance of Vietnam: intervention is bad. And they learned something about colonialism and its results.
ARTISTS CALL works with the Puerto Rican community in New York as well as with exiles and expatriates. Growing numbers of people in cultural fields are visiting Nicaragua, and returning to communicate directly the validity of the revolution and its militant popular support.
Culture has played a major part in this new awareness. The wave of brilliant Latin literature and its distribution here has been important: the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardenal and the heirs of Jose Marti, the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; also the songs of Victor Jara and Violeta Parra, the Chilean murals, the Cuban posters, the nueva cancion movement, the fact that almost every member of the Nicaraguan re-construction government junta is a poet, writer or priest, the intellectual background provided by so many revolutionary leaders, from Che Guevara to Maurice Bishop. What is known about the "other Americas" is known here through the eyes and ears and imaginations of artists, whose task is to picture the present and envision a changed future. (excerpt)
Performance art, music, film and video have been continuously worked into the weave of activity at No Rio from its earliest days (and before, at the 172 Delancey Street "field office" directly succeeding the Real Estate Show). Under the current directors, dancers Jack Waters and Peter Francis, performance has assumed a central role in the gallery's schedule.
the power of performance at No Rio has been to bring people together - regular performance series cohere the organizational momentum of the gallery and maintain ABC's role as a neighborhood social center. Many artists are multi-disciplinary in their approach, and performance often reiterates concerns evident in painting and sculpture. In these pages we have included images from performances and related films and video.
By Alan Moore
Since its inception, No Rio artists have always been drawn to performance. The "Real Estate Show" itself was a political performance, and nearly every exhibition has involved a performance component. The performances at No Rio really got underway with the "Poetry, Video and Music" series in 1980, organized by Contact II magazine editor Josh Gosciak, Bobby G, then producer of the Potato Wolf artists' cable series, and East Village Eye publisher Leonard Abrams. The series made of No Rio a kind of artists' nightclub, similar in kind to Club 57 (then approaching its heyday) and the rough-and-ready Mudd Club.
Gosciak drew together a diverse group of poets bespeaking the role of the East Village as home to generations of wordsmiths-Miguel Algarin and Miguel Pinero of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe project, Tuli Kupferberg illustrating "Beatnik Glory"-as well as such newer favorites as Kathy Acker, Diane Burns, and Bob Holman. Video and filmmakers, most of them artists, held impromptu nights.
The music program exposed many of the "art bands" whose members were made up mostly of visual artists-Body, Y Pants (and its members in solo performance)-or poets, like Avant Squares. Leonard Abrams also booked a steady stream of bands who wanted to debut in New York. Jazz musicians performed in tandem with poets, and street performers were enticed to No Rio (a pair of Jamaican steel drummers found their way to the Island show, and the "One Man Hubcap Band" of 34th Street appeared in Absurdities). Although No Rio could never afford to hire a salsa band, the programmers sought to strike a balance between the hard sound of punk, noise and art bands and music more indigenous to the area...
...From the vantage point of historical modernism, performance is accounted as something epiphanal for visual artists; it engages them most strongly when they are young, as a kind of zone of possibilities for those who have yet to find their metier.
The alternative spaces of the '70s arose in large part to expose the ongoing work of performers and most have more or less extensive schedules, creating the vestiges of a circuit (described by one dancer recently as a "shantytown") which is constantly swollen by incoming performance artists from Europe and California, where the medium is accorded more status.
Artists performing were tolerated by few bars which booked entertainment in the '70s, and many performers started their own, like Jean Dupuy's Grommet Theatre, Arleen Schloss's "A's" performance salon, and the Ear Inn, far west on Spring Street, which was the brainchild of avant garde musicians and artists from the Fluxus group. With the rise of large numbers of nightclubs in Manhattan vying for the late-night dollar, performers have hit the bars, and by the mid-'80s, the primary venue for performers has become the nightclub. The trend seems to emphasize appealing to a wider (usually drunken) audience, moving performance more purposively in a popular direction.