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
One of the factors that distinguished ABC No Rio was its home on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side, a famous slum that in 1980 was on the brink of gentrification that was soon accelerated by an influx into the neighborhood of young artists, scenesters, and students. The Lower East Side's long and diverse history, visible in the streets around the gallery, was a source of inspiration for No Rio. A young writer, J.B. Holston, prepared for the book a capsule history of the area (here greatly abridged) that recounts not only immigrant misery, poverty, and overcrowding, but also the neighborhood’s rich history of political ideals, altruism and struggle; its hard-scrabble success stories; ethnic cultural traditions from Yiddish theater to Hispanic poetry; and, more recent strains of American counter-culture like beats, hippies and punks.
By J.B. Holston
...The great wave of European immigration pouring into the Lower East Side began in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and continued through the first years of World War II. The majority of these immigrants were Jews, exiles from oppression and from opportunities lost to the coalescing bourgeoisie of north central Europe. By 1910 a quarter of the city's population was Jewish, up from 4% in 1880. The two square miles of the Lower East Side became one of the most densely populated areas of the western world; tenement apartments held an average of ten not-necessarily-related residents. The social life of the area centered around saloons, cafes, billiard halls, 5-cent vaudeville houses, penny arcades, theaters and social clubs.
Class consciousness rose inexorably in the area.
The closing of the nineteenth century was documented by Jacob Riis evocations of slum life in photography and essays. The new masses found voices in journals like the Jewish Daily Forward, founded on East Broadway in 1897, and in more radical tabloids like Emma Goldman's anarchist Mother Earth, founded in 1906. The socialist newspaper The Masses grew to The New Masses through the first decades of this century, a banner beneath which Redsniffers found suspects throughout the McCarthy years. Consciousness led to efforts to alleviate the suffering of the area's poorest. The Neighborhood Guild, the first settlement house on the Lower East Side, opened in 1886; in 1893 the Henry Street Settlement was founded; and in 1898 the nondenominational settlement at 147 Avenue B (the Christadora House tower, most recently a speculator's dream) opened.
...Many of the most noted members of the New York school lived, worked, and played downtown, in Greenwich Village and East, at the fringes of Manhattan life. Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Wilhelm and Elaine de Kooning, Harold Rosenberg, Max Spivak, and a host of other artists congregated in each others' lofts, at the Cedar Street Tavern and the Waldorf Cafe, and at the New School. The 1948 "Subject of the Artist" show on East 8th Street; and the "Ninth Street Show" of 1951, held in an abandoned storefront by Leo Castelli, marketed with designs by Yves Klein, and featuring most of the best known of this group, signaled the market's shift downtown. The first cooperative galleries began on East 10th Street, next to de Kooning's studio. Increasing stature brought the media and waves of art aspirants to the area.
...Rauschenberg moved into Manhattan in 1949; by 1951 he and John Cage, who had moved to the city in '42, were living within a few blocks of each other in tenement buildings close to the Williamsburg Bridge. Cage's penthouse loft was the setting for his weekly soirees, attended by the best-known of the New York artists, at which his chance-composed pieces were performed. In 1954 Jasper Johns moved onto Avenue A at 8th Street in an apartment costing 513 a month; by 1955 he and Rauschenberg were sharing a loft on Pearl Street. The Beats became regulars at the old Abstract Expressionist haunts Allen Ginsberg took an apartment on East 5th Street in 1952. The Lower East Side served as a cheap host through those years to artists reacting to and opposing the institutions they frequently sought to master.
...The Fugs, whose members included Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg, Ken Weaver, and Brillo Box, began at the Peace Eye Bookstore on East 10th Street, and performed weekly at the Astor Playhouse on Lafayette Street. Their concentration on "nouveau folk-freak, sex rock and roll, dope thrill chants, horny cunt-hunger blues, and Total Assault on Culture," expressed in such songs as "After the Orgy," "Caca Rocka,' and "I Feel Like Homemade Shit," enveloped the concerns of the area's latest immigrants. Yoko Ono hosted frequent concerts at her loft on Pitt Street, and Charlotte Moorman, characterized as the "Jeanne d'Arc of New Music," played various things by and positions with Nam June Paik, the earliest and most influential video artist. The '60s years in the East Village, both the art and the desperate politics, were documented in the electrifying pages of The East Village Other, perhaps the nation's leading exemplar of the underground newspaper.
...The last great wave of immigrants to the area came from the Caribbean---first the Puerto Ricans after World War II, soon followed by Dominicans in the '60s and the jibaros, Caribbean people of color. ... In the early '70s general unemployment (aggravated by the closing of factories and garment shops in industrial Soho as it became first an artists' then a bourgeois community), strengthened the heroin trade to the point where it became the principal income of a large segment of the area's residents. Despite the bleak economics of the '70s and '80s, new cultural surges came up on the Lower East Side. El Teatro Ambulante, fronted by the venerable Jorge Brandon, "El Coco Que Habla" (The Talking Coconut), and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe run by Miguel Algarin forged a new synthesis of Hispanic American poetry and theater.
The rise of the nightclub was a big part of the story of New York City's cultural life in the late 70s and early 80s. When CBGB's and Max's Kansas City (a holdover from the 60s) launched punk music, artists gravitated to this new arena. The Mudd Club initiated theme- night parties and served as a stage for the diversified tendencies of emerging "New Wave" and "No Wave" style. With Club 57's performance evenings and one-night art exhibits, East Village nightlife began to boom, and numerous storefront clubs and illegal after-hours bars sprouted in the neighborhood. No Rio artists participated in this scene and the special blend of social intercourse, fashion, music, art and design found in the nightclubs of the era strongly influenced the activities at No Rio. For the No Rio book we collected text from people involved in both art and nightlife: the art writer Edit deAk, organizer of "Dubbed in Glamour" a cabaret style performance event at the Kitchen; Diego Cortez, an early member of Colab, a veteran of CBGB and the Mudd Club, and the curator of the influential 1981 “New York/ New Wave" exhibition at PS1; and Ann Magnuson, who ran Club 57, and was a successful performer in both the art world and Hollywood.
By Edit deAk, 1981
So it's champagne and cuchifritos, barred from heaven, no fault of our own. We have codified this urban limbo. We are in the urban synch but we are not down the drain. We are mavericks poised between our world and your world. We are prospectors of slum vintage. Who renamed the city after our own names. This is our turf. We operate a hardcore cradle of maverick kink. This is the jive of the personal. Poker‑faced. We are flim‑flam. Poised, raunchy and sensual our coded touch depleted of imagery, we have put this city into a garbage bag and emptied it in your lovely home. Don't bug us. We are not you. You have become us. We have taken your garbage all our lives and are selling it back at an inconceivable markup. We have died a copy death. We are stultified in the urban stink. Art Spectacle. We were driving in a cab with the window down and a diamond ring flew in our eye. We are the artists of the berzerker lumpen. Not for mature audiences. Our channel has been pre‑empted by impossible messages we do not understand. Cultural intrigue. We are putting the jive of the personal idiosync back to the mass produced. Cheap appeal. This is the visual scuzz‑urban lyric of image pirates. We have bought from the world‑wide street and its dimestores, ladies and gentlemen, high art. This is the great white hope of neo slum turfs. You are receiving an unlisted signal. Our excitement whips coded images into subjective events. Prime Time/Dime Time.
Abridged from an exhibition handout at a group show at Brooke Alexander galleiy, September, 1981
Diego Cortez and Edit deAk talk, 1980
Diego Cortez: I guess the evolution from about '75 through '80 for me went from being an artist who really couldn't get many chances because of the market situation and the art gallery scene into having to produce a market, you know, becoming a kind of entrepreneur. But it wasn't just like me or you, it was everybody making their own records, their own magazines, and we all became entrepreneurs in our own way, kind of like conceptual artists attacking and becoming the uh, the enemy, which was the business scene. I think that was, it was like, you know--going into the business world.
...Edit DeAk: It basically boiled down to the fact that when the art market lost its pseudo-capitalist gloss, a Leo Castelli could say: You're not my type, and you have to agree to it because it's business...
DC: Leo filled up. There just weren't any more Leos. The pop artists and post-minimal artists had produced so much, had taken up so much of the space, people's attention, and time. And yet, the galleries were so indebted to these artists, to keeping their lofts, the refrigerators stuffed with food, more coats of polyurethane on the floor, that it was like a drug habit, a survival habit that was way out of proportion. So these artists, these dealers, couldn't let any more people in.
...DC: After five years of being in New York and realizing there was no room for me in the art market, I drifted into the rock scene by mistake and I really liked it there. It was the highest form of art I had seen for quite a while, and I mean high art. The metaphor, the style of dress, the words that were in the songs, the names of the groups, at that time it was really earth-shattering.
...DC: With the New Wave exhibition at P.S. 1, 1 felt like I wanted to attack the gallery situation. Not catering to it, but supplanting it with a whole new business. I mean, throwing up such a volume of work, more work than had been seen in three years in the gallery system.
ED: What you brought in is something that the art world has been aloof from, scared of, they didn't know what it was because basically it happened between midnight and five o'clock in the morning for four years. So they missed it.
DC: The night time is the right time.
ED: And they were pre-empted, and by last year, unconsciously, they began to feel this very concrete vacuum that they were missing a large part...
By Ann Magnuson, ZG. 1982
They came from the outermost regions of America, suburban refugees drawn to the big city in search of fame, fortune and fun. Self-exiled from the comforts of American 9-to-5, two car family living, they migrated to the uncertainties of the nocturnal bohemian world of Manhattan's misfitted East Village. At a time when the Bee Gees were at the top of the charts, these young pioneers ventured into the dangerous tenement wilds of urban space-the Final Frontier.
...Weaned on television and rock 'n' roll, these exponents of the 15-minute attention span generation turned Club 57 into a center for personal Exorcism. Nightly services of bloodletting rituals released spirits buried deep within their collective subconscious. Media heathens, re-enacting scenes from the communal memory grooved in a group mind with a one-way ticket to Nirvana. A golden calf had been erected and it was a Zenith Space Command Three Hundred 26" color console. Inspiration radiated forth from its channels and the Holy Trinity of Networks delivered The Word-"go forth and multiply." And they did-creating a pantheon of divinities and developing the Ultimate Philosophy of Grooviness...
...from the south did blow the island winds and so the children sought the reggae beat, constructing a putt-putt golf course in honor of its coming. But from this they led themselves into frenzied ceremonial dancing, gnawing on cursed chickens and wielding death dolls in mock adoration of Bongo Voodoo, sister to Mondo Cane, flirting with the temptations of evil. And from teenager blood and gore did the Monster Movie Club enlighten them to Hammer-vampire-Texas-Chainsaw-astrozombie knowledge, and so begot further cinematic catharsis. And, lo, from beyond the valley of the Ultra Vixens came the tempter Russ Meyer whose disciples would soon be furious chanting the incantations of "Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!" And the cult of the "look but don't touch" cheesecake goddess Jayne Mansfield grew to massive proportions...
...Artists made art, musicians made noise, designers made clothes and mirth-makers made merry...the channels kept changing, the cells kept dividing and the cauldron kept bubbling and from this they did drink.
Excerpted from ZG magazine, No. 8 "Heroes Issue," Winter 1982
When No Rio opened in 1980 it was a lonely outpost in an art world that was largely concentrated in Soho, Tribeca, Madison Avenue, and 57th Street. It was not long, however, before a wave of commercial art galleries began opening in the East Village (the north section of the Lower East Side), which along with the new nightclubs, boutiques and eateries transformed the area into a stylish Manhattan neighborhood. A rash of publicity in art magazines established the Fun Gallery, Gracie Mansion and others as champions of a new aesthetic. We included in the book an excerpt from an early article about the rise of "East Village Art" from Art in America written by Walter Robinson and Carlo McCormick, both part of the No Rio community. While No Rio had once been the sole art gallery in a ghetto, now the addition of dozens of art spaces made it seem like the harbinger of an art explosion. The changing neighborhood challenged No Rio’s self-image as a politically progressive space; simultaneously though it heightened the gallery’s art-world presence and its usefulness for artists hoping to build their careers. Many No Rio artists soon gained wider recognition as participants in the new "East Village scene." The No Rio book also benefited from the "East Village" art hype. The book was printed with revenue from advertisements for galleries and restaurants, and was widely reviewed and purchased. The popularity of the East Village galleries ended abruptly in the late 1980s. ABC No Rio has outlasted nearly all of them.
By Walter Robinson and Carlo McCormick, Art in America, 1984
...Taken as a package, as a phenomenon, the East Village ( art gallery) scene is so much a "ready-made" that it seems uncanny, a marketing masterpiece based on felicitous coincidences. Besides having its own artists, neighborhood, art press and distinctive gallery names, the East Village art scene has its own day (Sunday) and its own gallery architecture-small tenement storefronts, with no back room and no storage. The area is compact, only a mile or so from Soho, and already celebrated for its many ethnic restaurants and boutiques. And as for ambience, the East Village also has its own: a unique blend of poverty, punk rock, drugs, arson. Hell's Angels, winos, prostitutes and dilapidated housing-all located in what is now seen as an adventurous avant-garde setting of considerable cachet.
...A Brief Chronology -The first of the new commercial galleries to emerge from the rubble of the punk rock scene was Fun Gallery. Opening in the fall of '81 on East 10th Street, the East Village's version of West Broadway, its most prominent figure from the start was its director, Patti Astor, a leading lady of the New York underground film scene (Underground U.S.A. by Eric Mitchell and Wild Style by Charlie Ahearn are among her credits). With her platinum hair and torch-singer style, Astor was as capable of attracting the media's imagination as any gallery owner ever. According to Astor, Fun was a commercial gallery because "I just wanted a place to show art and didn't want to bother with filling out grant forms."
Fun started as a small circle of graffiti artists and neighborhood residents captivated by the liveliness of ghetto culture. With the same street sensibility as Fashion/Moda in the South Bronx, the East Village's big sister slum to the north, Fun openings were mini festivals of the slum arts, featuring rap music and break-dancing along with the graffiti paintings on the walls. As might be expected from a pioneer, Fun's commercial success was at first uncertain-it "borrowed back" some of its better known artists from Soho-but it did prove that collectors would not only show up in the East Village but come in limos with checkbooks. In the next two years, Fun gave birth to the Lower East Side careers of such artists as Jean Michel Basquiat, Fab Five Freddy, Futura 2000, Keith Haring, Kiely Jenkins, Lee Quinones, Kenny Scharf and Dondi White.
...Gracie Mansion opened in the spring of '82 and immediately became the embodiment of the spirit of the East Village. It was initially billed as the "gallery for the viewing at close range of intimate works of art by lower Manhattan artists" and subtitled "Loo Division"-the gallery doubled as the bathroom of Gracie's tenement apartment. The Loo Division established some of the East Village scene's hallmarks: self-parody, small works that reflect tenement-apartment studios, bargain basement pricing and a lowbrow, not altogether ironic taste for kitsch. After her landlord reacted to crowds at her openings by putting a halt to her apartment shows, Gracie moved briefly to St. Mark's Place, where she mounted "The Famous Show," an extravaganza featuring almost 100 artists and profiling the new art of the neighborhood through portraits of its residents. In the spring of '83 Gracie Mansion moved to her current, rather bucolic location on East 10th Street at the northeast end of Tompkins Square Park, where she has since introduced the art world to multi-media artists Rodney Alan Greenblatt and Rhonda Zwillinger, among others. Among Gracie's specialties are shows that restyle her gallery floor-to-ceiling, including wallpaper, and often enough, furniture. One group show featured coordinated couch-and-picture sets by six artists.
This article was excerpted from manuscript of the piece appearing in Art in America, June, 1984
The flipside of the East Village art explosion was the phenomenon of renewal and rebuilding called "gentrification." As artists and galleries moved into the neighborhood, rents began to rise far beyond the means of working people. "The Real Estate Show" which spawned No Rio spotlighted the phenomenon and was rooted in the experience of the artists themselves having been gentrified out of Soho and Tribeca. While spaces like ABC No Rio and Group Material expressed political solidarity with their new neighbors, they were also part of the economic forces inexorably changing the neighborhood and erasing the area's ethnic identity. The No Rio book featured these uncomfortable contradictions in a text by Tim Rollins of Group Material based on an interview with a longtime resident of East 13th Street. Photographs by Martha Cooper and Harvey Wang of Hispanic life in the neighborhood illustrated this section of the book.
The following is a transcription of a friend's end of a conversation we had in the late spring of 1981 during the last days of Group Material's gallery on East 13th Street. I often sat nights at the gallery, and Richard, a resident of eighteen years on the block, would come in and we'd drink and hang out and talk, often past closing time at 9p.m. We were fooling around this particular evening and I had a recorder with me so we just turned it on and this is what was said.
- Tim Rollins
You know, like I don't want to be nosy, and we all got our reasons for doing what we do with our lives, but I wonder everybody here on the block wonders-why are you here? What are you all doing this for? I don't mean to snap on the type of people you are or the type of artwork you do-although I definitely got my own opinions about that-but you people aren't going to sell much art on this block and I don't think many rich people would want to come down on this block and hang out if you know what I mean. They'd be a little wary, you know. (Laughter) So why are you here?
...When you first opened up here with that first big art exhibition, everybody on the block came down and sat on the sides of the cars in front of the building and just stared at all the white people coming in. Now like nothing like that had ever happened on this block! I mean, we were all just trying to figure out what the luck was going on. We saw the posters and we all knew you during the summer when you were fixing the place up, but still it was real strange to see when it happened. This is a block with a bad reputation, I know. That was mainly due to the methadone clinic that used to be on the corner over there. Like you had people, real sick people, passing out on the sidewalks here. Our kids had to step over them on the way home from school. But the good part of this block is that this block is family, and, you know, like every family, it's got its own certain trials and tribulations but everyone nevertheless feels real good about the place.
...look across the street to those buildings being renovated. Those fucking buildings have been standing empty over there for two years now. Someone's just sitting on them, waiting for their value to shoot up. Then they'll make their move. In the meantime, we have to look at that shit. And when they fix it, did you hear how much they want for a studio in that place? $550! [that would be a bargain today- Ed.] On this block! The weird thing is that half of the guys who live on this block and have lived here for years are the same guys who are doing the construction work on that building. When you eat day-to-day, you get a day-to-day brain. You get what you need now and worry about the consequences later. To tell the truth, you usually don't even know what the consequences will be until its too late and you've fucked yourself. We've all seen neighborhoods rise and fall like little countries. In five years I bet you won't even see our asses on this block. Only this time, I don't know where people will go. There's always the Bronx. Lots of family up there. You know, you'll be walking on the East Side sometime and you'll see Richard got pushed right into the East River! Chased by fucking bulldozers, man! (Laughter.)
I don't know. You can't blame all these white kids, these punk rockers and students and artists and whatevers. They're people too, and most of them are broke like everyone else and this is the cheapest thing they can get in the city too. But their just being here changes everything-good or bad. I really get the impression that a lot of people, since they're forced into these kinds of neighborhoods, live here and try to get into what they think is the nitty-gritty of society here. I guess it's better to get excited about it than depressed.
All I'm saying is that while a lot of the art and stuff I see happening around here is new and interesting and is kind of directed to the people who live here, I've also seen some real lily-white shit spring up-in art exhibitions, in new bars and eating places-like everywhere. It's like a lot of bored people from good backgrounds getting into the bad of the neighborhood. And here we are struggling like hell to get rid of the bad, you know? We find no romance in junk and shit. Like I say, people got to be slapped into reality, but you don't do that by showing them all their shit. I mean, we got to look at all the shit on the streets every day. Who wants to see it in a gallery, too? Know what I mean? You might think the art is for someone. Who? I can't honestly say it looks like it's for us. I'm no expert. It's just a feeling I get from the art sometimes. You know what you should do? You should try to find the artists on this block, you know, and get them to pull all their shit out of closets and under the bed and wherever else they've been hiding their stuff. Me, I’m a hopeless case. I do these collages that I told you about and I occasionally indulge in writing poetry. But I don't want to show that stuff. Shit, if I did that the whole neighborhood would have me in check! (Laughter.)
I wonder what the old Jewish people thought when us Spanish people started moving into the East Side a long time ago. There are a lot still here-the old diehards-people like me. But they must have felt weird and fucked over back then too. When poor people move into a neighborhood somewhere, it's called "ghettoization." and when the people who split and have more money finally move back into that neighborhood, it's called "gentrification."
I saw a strange thing on 13th and Avenue C the other day. There was this kitchen curtain-it looked brand new. It was white and it had this lace trim all around the edge. Real nice. And someone, I guess it must have been a woman, wrote something in paint on the curtain and hung it outside on their fire escape. The words said in Spanish, "These are homes not businesses." Now that was crazy, right? But it was brave too. Try to express that sentiment, that logic to a fucking landlord! You should have that curtain hanging in this gallery. A lot of people could relate to it. Art's got to be for someone, for yourself or for rich people or for people, but it's got to be for someone. I don't see the sense in it otherwise. I mean that lady-it was the landlord's fire escape, but it was her fucking curtain, right? (Laughter.)
But shit, what am I sitting here for? Talk is cheap, right? You got to be organized to fight something. You got to know what you're fighting, right? Nobody seems to be able to get it together for some reason. For myself, I choose to refrain from politics, you know. (Laughter.) The cycles are going to happen anyways. You got to just try to ride with them, that's all.
Well, I'm going home now. Eighteen years in a place makes it your home, man. I don't care who owns the deed. I'll be seeing you in the East River. Maybe I'll be pushed in there before you, but I'll see you there someday.
Where do you live, anyways?