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
From the moment of its inception No Rio attracted a degree of attention that greatly exceeded what one might expect of a dilapidated, cash-strapped, off-the-beaten track, artist-run gallery. No Rio's connection to the "Real Estate Show," the "Time Square Show" and the artist group Colab gave it special cachet and a solid network of support that quickly translated into major press coverage. Bomb Magazine was part of the Colab orbit and received funds from the group which helped finance the magazine's first issue. Bomb's "Interview with No Rio" appeared in its second issue and provided the gallery's champions, Alan Moore, Becky Howland, and Bobby G a platform to lay out their aspirations for the space. As befitting a collective, in the interview, the words of the three co-directors were combined into a single voice. At the time No Rio was formed in 1980, the Village Voice was the preeminent chronicler of New York counter culture and Richard Goldstein was one of the paper's strongest and most perceptive writers. His article "Enter the Anti-Space," written only months after No Rio opened, provided a lively retelling of the story of No Rio's origins, and linked the gallery to Colab, Fashion/Moda and the emerging concept of politically aware, interactive art.
Bomb Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 2, 1982
Shelley Leavitt: Tell me about the history of No Rio.
No Rio: It came about as the result of the Real Estate Show. The city closed the Real Estate Show down but knew they had to negotiate with us. They offered us another space which ended up to be Rivington Street. So that was the deal. We got No Rio for closing the Real Estate Show down, for not reopening the Real Estate Show.
SL So it was a swap.
NR Yeah. They let us have this space and then forgot about us.
SL How is No Rio structured as a collective, how is authority dispensed. Is there a hierarchy of authority? Do you consider yourselves the people who run No Rio?
NR We’re the saps.
It comes down to: the people who do the work make the decisions. It’s pretty open. No one’s ever been excluded as far as I know. But hardly anyone ever goes down to maintain the place.
SL How do the ideas for the shows evolve? Do people approach you with ideas?
NR That’s pretty much it, yeah…Different artists have ideas for showsÑwe have ideas for showsÑ
SL Your shows are open to anyone who wants to exhibit, is that true?
NR Yeah, I’d say that most of the shows are open. Some shows are done by one or two people.
SL Does that create a problem for you in terms of your personal aesthetics or politics? Do you ever find that the work that people want to exhibit conflicts with your aesthetics?
NR Yeah, but I just go with it anyway. Because somebody believes in it. There was a show last fall called the Murder, Suicide and Junk Show that I didn’t really support. I thought it was bad PR for No Rio in the community because we were just establishing ourselves then. But it happened anyway and it was pretty successful, it brought a lot of people down to No Rio and it involved a lot of young artists who hadn’t been working there before. So in answer to your question, yes.
SL But have you ever prohibited something from being shown because of personal taste?
NR Not that I can think of. Some people are encouraged more than others. It’s also limited by the number of people who hear about a show. It’s all word of mouth.
SL What if someone offered something that was reprehensible to your politics? Say if someone offered a show that was racist or in any other way went against the ideology of the group?
NR We basically don’t have to deal with those people. They don’t come along.
SL But if the situation does come up, would you exercise discrimination?
NR: I don’t think it’s really in the cards. But if somebody did that you know, it’s a public place and in a third world neighborhood, and they would have to deal with that; the black and hispanic people who would be revolted by it. Assuming that it’s Anglo people exercising racism against black and hispanic people.
SL What’s the response in general been from the community? How much has the community become involved with No Rio?
NR As an audience it’s fine. I wish they were more involved in organizing it.
I don’t think that in large numbers the community really turns out for things at No Rio, but the people that do come have a direct contact relationship. I was working on a video project out of No Rio with a couple of kids and we were spending every day together making videotapes. It was only two kids, but they brought in another kid so it was three kids. It’s not a large number of people, but it’s a direct working relationship, unfortunately short-lived because of lack of funds, basically.
SL What’s your general audience if it’s not comprised of community people?
NR I would say it’s primarily other artists and people who are moving into the neighborhood, white people. People who do the alternative performance circuit. The house doesn’t hold that many people to begin with. The singular thing about performance at No Rio is the quality of cabaret intimacy that’s generated. That is what is most characteristic of it.
SL Are the artists who exhibit community people?
NR Sometimes, but for the most part, no. It’s really hard to locate hispanic artists. There aren’t too many down there, and they wouldn’t be particularly oriented towards No Rio anyway, because No Rio is basically an outgrowth of white, middle class artists who have certain responses to the situation in which they find themselves, and it’s directly related to alternative spaces, an attempt by artists to have their own situation, but it’s still within the art world structure.
In actual practice our relationship to the art world doesn’t matter that much, but the kind of people who see this stuff are not a lot of people who would never have any relationship to the art world. No Rio is not specifically a place to exhibit. It’s more like an art-making center. We have bonds with galleries and alternative spaces, but I think of No Rio as being a place where you could do things that wouldn’t even cross your mind to do in a gallery.
The gallery scene allows, asks the artist to do a very limited thing. It asks for a certain range of things within a very circumscribed situation. And artists can do lots of things and artists are interested in doing lots of things, and No Rio certainly provides more scope although it provides no support in terms of money. [Since this interview, No Rio has received a New York State Council on the Arts grant.]
SL In the posters you used to publicize events at No Rio, you refer to exhibits as art exhibits…Again, since you have open shows, what meaning do you assign to “art?”
NR I can’t exactly say what art is. I’m not going to make a judgement. That’s why I don’t mind seeing artwork up there that I don’t necessarily agree with politically or otherwise. It makes me question what art is about. It’s not a dictatorial situation at No Rio. It’s not, “You can only make your works if…” Nobody’s saying that at No Rio. We’re saying what are your ideas really. Let’s reveal them, let’s expose them and then we’ll be able to see if they stand up, if they hold water. No Rio is a laboratory for art ideas. People bring their chemicals and mix them up and that’s it. And we’re not going to say, well we can’t show that stuff because it stinks. We don’t say that, but some of the work may say that.
SL As artists yourselves, I can’t believe that it’s possible for you to walk into No Rio and avoid making judgments on the quality of the work being shown as you would at any other gallery. Is the quality of the work shown at No Rio an issue for you?
NR I think it’s important to maintain a certain climate, a certain climate of activity. Everything that goes on there has a certain feel, a common motivation.
We’re talking about extending a place where artists work, an artist’s situation, not a gallery, not a workshop. And a lot of what’s involved in extending that situation is dealing with people’s responses to it and those come in the form of well, here’s my drawing, here’s my piece of art, here’s my chip in the pile. So you deal with that, you’re not simply looking for quality sculpture and painting.
If somebody wants to make the commitment of bringing their work there for a specific show I think they should be encouraged. It’s off the beaten path. I don’t know what’s in it for anyone to show at No Rio. No Rio’s had a certain amount of publicity so it has a certain amount of respect within or without the art community, but nevertheless you really have to extend yourself to show down there. It’s not like on the road to getting a show in Soho. It’s more of a detour. So people are making a committment just by bringing their work in, and I’m not going to say, well, this person is not very bright so I’m not going to allow them to participate in No Rio, I’d rather encourage that person to express his ideas, and maybe he’ll develop or I’ll develop. Besides, I’m not about to go to the Lower East Side and play cop in any form.
I think one thing you can say about almost all the work that emerges out of No Rio is that it exists within a social context. It’s not totally based on the history of art, but it’s based on artists’ perceptions in this culture.
We still have the potential to form a political alliance with other groups in the area and that’s a potential that the Kitchen and P.S. 1 don’t have. They don’t think about it, and they wouldn’t be particularly open to it.
One of the things the Real Estate Show was designed to do was to provide information to the community. But you have to understand that people in these kinds of situations aren’t exactly looking for information. A lot of them have been through the mill several times and have been burned. To them we’re hippies, we’re beatniks, we’re just white kids whose game is incomprehensible to them.
It requires more effort on our part to get over the cultural barrier than we are willing to put in and more effort on their part to get over the cultural barrier than they’re willing to put in-in most instances. However, I suspect that that will break down. Because there are mutations, and that’s what we're waiting for.
By Richard Goldstein, Village Voice, 1980
"It's not a space," says Bobby G, indignantly, his eyes nearly as wide as the plastic frames around his glasses. "It's a place!"
ABC No Rio certainly is a place. Smack dab in the heart o what Jacob Riis once called "the typhus ward," this storefront at 156 Rivington Street is among the least likely places to be included in the New Museum's walking tour of artists' studios.
"It's stuck in this really tight sweet domestic Hispanic five blocks," says Becky Howland, with only a twinkle of irony. She points out the faded sign, across the street - ABOGADO NOTARIO - from which ABC No Rio takes its name. The store was a gift from the city, a settlement following the "para-legal action" by these artists last New Year's Day: they seized an abandoned building on Delancey Street as the setting for a didactic spectacle, "The Real Estate Show." To the city's pointed distress, the artists had liberated the cornerstone of an urban renewal project being fought over by Latins, Chinese, and Jews. The city closed them down, which is the highest tribute government can pay to art.
Tremors from "The Real Estate Show" helped create a public for the movement to wrest control of art from museums, galleries, and alternative spaces that were created only a few years ago to let young artists in. "The alternative spaces warehouse artists," says Alan Moore, a founder of ABC No Rio. Here, where the rain has made a gash in the ceiling, there are no perfectly formed objets against white-washed walls. Here, there is no curator to assign a rubric to your work. Among people who suffer from more than sex and drugs and rock 'n roll, the artist takes a stand. On a wall papered with contributions to ABC No Rio's fall show "Murder, Suicide and Junk," is a crayoned drawing of a tall man plunging a knife into the heart of a small woman. The drawing is based on an incident witnessed by the nine-year-old daughter of the woman killed. She lives in the building above.
ABC No Rio is the latest manifestation of Colab, known on funding applications as Collaborative Projects. You may remember Colab from its sponsorship of "The Times Square Show," in which artists transmogrified a message parlor off 41st Street.
It is a phantom affiliation of young ferrets who have settled in neighborhoods where the name Ivan Karp evokes only bacalao. They also show in these neighborhoods, which is where the experiments begins.
Much of the Colab sensibility germinated in the South Bronx, where an Austrian artist named Stefan Eins operates Fashion/Moda, the original anti-space. Like ABC No Rio, it is located in a formerly abandoned storefront, this one at 1803 Third Avenue, in the once-bustling "Hub." Like bobby G, Eins disdains the word "space," preferring to call his establishment "a cultural concept." He, too, rejects the alternative space movement for its failure to vest authority in the individual (artist or curator), and for its exclusivity. "European culture in the past 2000 years has been carried by elites," he says. "At first, the scope broadened to include the bourgeoisie. Maybe now we are ready for a total inclusion of all people. I see Fashion/Moda as participating in that trend." The name refers to style in the broadcast scene ("Moda" is not an acronym, but the Spanish word for fashion), and the administration includes Joe Lewis, a black New York artist, and William Scott, a 15 year old from the neighborhood.
Last week, the walls of Fashion/Moda were covered with canvases executed by teenagers who usually work in the subways. The curator of this show, Crash, stood to one side with his girlfriend, while a man in a torn bomber jacket took a quick look at the art and asked for spare change.
Though the presence of artists who have never seen the inside of a gallery is Fashion/Moda's hallmark, Eins insists that's not the reason he left Manhattan two years ago. It was to free artists from "the hooking o sensitivity and big money," by placing them in an environment completely void of references to fine art. Eins insists the South Bronx forces artists to devise solutions that are independent of the marketplace. It also forces them to confront a minority culture that isn't American. All the anti-spaces are located in Hispanic neighborhoods, heightening the illusion that seems essential to this movement: New York as a crossroads where alienated Europeans meet outcast Americans before a bemused third world.
Eins seems uneasy about the influx of French and German artists, but in fact, their prosperity - and our decline - has made the postwar dream of a unified Western aesthetic viable on other than American terms. Art in the '80s is a multi-national event, and the anti-space movement is very much an expression of European ideas about the strength of collective action. It is, to use a handy referent, the Frankfurt School come home to roost.
Which brings me to the most profoundly social of the anti-spaces, Group Material, at 244 East 13th Street [since this article, Group Material dissolved, reformed, and relocated in space occupied Taller Latinoamericano, a Latin American exile support group]. Here, in the heart of the up 'n' coming East Village, artists five years younger than the Colab crowd have opened an exhibition space that offers advice about lowering your rent - in Spanish. People from the block donated all the furniture; local children wander in, giggling at the walls.
At the opening last month, 400 people gobbled fish fritters cooked by the woman upstairs. It was so successful, as art events go, that Group Material has already earned the enmity of New Wave artists far and wide. "Real cute," smirks one. "Well read," snarls another.
The members of Group Material return the compliment. "We don't identify ourselves as New Wave artists," says Beth Jaker. "It seems to be a very reflective art," her colleague Tim Rollins adds, "a camp critique, the middle class making fun of itself. It's like the warning Walter Benjamin gave about the danger of aestheticizing politics. We're less interested in reflecting than in projecting out into the community."
A great deal about Group Material resembles Fashion/Moda: the emphasis on community involvement, the rebellion against art that expresses a primarily formal concern, the determination to circumvent galleries and alternative spaces.
Since Group Material is not located in an abandoned building, each artist contributes $45 a month towards the rent. Shows are curated by committee: artists address a given theme. The current show is described as "a survey of the new cultural militancy emergent in the work o artists, collectives, and nonartists in the U.S. and Europe." There is much assemblage of image and text, as if the artists were trying to coax you away from a purely visual interpretation. Tim Rollins: "If anything has to do with Group Material, it's reinventing the dialectic through art."
Marxism and sexual politics of a special sort inform their work. Two women in the group are involved in an upcoming issue of Heresies on sexuality; yet they object to art that "addresses genital icons" -i.e., Judy Chicago. "We prefer to comment on femininity as a social phenomenon," says Beth Jaker. Most of the men in the group are openly gay, yet they are skeptical about the recent wave of male iconography. Pat Brennan: "I don't think a work of art should be gay, because it isn't. The person who made it is." Tim Rollins: "By creating a gay art work, you presume a separation from society. I absolutely refuse to ghettoize myself."
Ideology equips these artists to control the presentation of their work, and the terms on which they court success. I wouldn't say the same of Colab's membership. During the gift-giving season, there will be two outlets for Colab products: the A. More Store on Broome Street, and the Brooke Alexander Gallery on 57th Street, which one artist calls "the pay more store."
Alexander has reportedly offered to show anything Colab wants to hang on his walls, and agreed to take only 10 percent of the gross - a steal in art-world terms. "People will be selling their talismans," Alan Moore of ABC No Rio predicts. We await the acquisition by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine of a rat by Christy Rupp.
Not every artist in Colab is tickled by its gallery debut. John Ahearn, whose busts of South Bronx residents were (arguably) the most enriching work in "The Times Square Show," has reportedly fled to the Grand Concourse, pursued by collectors who want to be cast. But most of the membership would probably agree with Bobby G that 57th Street is "where the power is. It's an audience that needs to be influenced. And I'd rather see people who will be responsive to the power showing there."
As the art world turns, assault becomes less provident than signatures of assault, evidence that a departure has occurred. Unable to sell the object, the gallery sells "documentation" - proof that the object existed. The artist who moved away from the epicenter of commerce finds that its boundaries have been extended. The original act of rebellion has become a standard by which other artists measure their contempt.
Group Material measures itself against "The times Square Show" and concludes that only analysis can save artists from becoming victims of their own enthusiasm. Yet, in the process of demystifying their image, something is lost. The art is so bluntly subordinate to its intention that it seems sedate. I leave the storefront gratified, but unmoved. Horribly enough for someone as earnest as myself, I much preferred "The Times Square Show," which left me skeptical but aroused.
Perhaps that's just my way of being "an educated consumer." Which puts me in the mind of an anecdote about Brecht, who kept a china jackass on his desk. On it he had affixed the words, "I too must understand." In this case, the jackass is form.