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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
The ABCs of ABC No Rio And Its Times
An Introduction by Alan Moore and Marc H. Miller, 1985
What we have here is a look at a few acts in a long running show of cultural history, a parade of art and urban disease, ideas and actions and lots of things -- rolling out of this set of conditions like so many dolls from a factory. The state of the Lower East Side of New York City provides pictures for painters, operas for actors and poets from an urban shambles of a slum where monstrous inequity is met with savagery, a nearly perfect specimen of malignant city life delivering itself up as subject for memorial before it is pushed off the local map by the contented belches of a bourgeoisie riding the wave of gentrification that has been called recession-proof. The situation has the lineaments of a socialist cartoon; events drawn from some Yiddish film plot; yet this neighborhood has also functioned as a cultural insulator. Within its bosom minority cultures have remained intact, and new ideas have incubated.
Across this stage rolls a slide for your inspection, ABC No Rio, an artist's storefront. It is no singular case; there are hundred of these struggling little cultural organisms in the American social brew, hundreds more overseas; still, it is quite distinctive. This sometimes gallery, occasional nightclub, an abandoned beauty parlor, ABC No Rio was wrested from the city government because of an art show called The Real Estate Show. As it has grown and changed, No Rio acts as a lens in this book for the content and inflection of New York art. Through the windows opened by these gathered accounts of the events of a few years can be glimpsed the shape of the life of art and the idea which motivate it.
We begin the story of No Rio with a look at its surrogate parent organization, Collaborative Projects, a group which reflected the milieu of the late '70s.
When the baby boom generation, schooled on the highly publicized art of the previous decade, flooded the artworld, they found that things weren't so open. While Warhol may have found instant fame, this new generation confronted a market fixated on the past, an emphasis on non-commodity art, and a propensity for new and expensive media. To deal with this situation, Colab banded together as a union of artists to raise funds, organize exhibitions, and share equipment. While this union of artists was unique at the time, its formation paralleled the growth of the alternative spaces. This great expansion of the non-commercial sector of the artworld was made possible by the new availability of state and federal grant monies.
At its beginnings Colab consisted of about forty artists, meeting each month in a different person's loft. In this open forum, then-filmmaker Michael McClard was especially persuasive in articulating the new group's direction. Colab was soon stoked by the National Endowment for the Arts with $6,000 and aspirations began to become reality. The principle activities of the group in '77 and '78 were film screenings, public and private, action which culminated in the short-lived New Cinema on St. Mark's Place in the East Village. Colab also produced a cable television news program, "All Color News," and published X Motion Picture Magazine, a collaboratively edited journal of film, photography, art and poetical reportage.
The artists of Colab practiced in every medium, and the group cohered for pragmatic ends and the desire for a peer group social scene rather than because of esthetic affinity. Still it is safe to say that the art styles that particularly engaged the young artists of Colab were not the formalist strains of painting and sculpture which still dominated the New York gallery world. More important was the psychologically rooted conceptual performance exemplified by Vito Acconci, the politicized social art of Joseph Beuys, and the first stirrings of new imagery and expressionist figuration. The avant-garde emphasis on non-commodity-oriented art celebrated an art-in-process which often verged on the crude, and encouraged the development of political ideation. Prominent among these was the feminist critique of male power structures in art and the artworld which heightened the awareness of the relationship between art and gender.
Locked out of the commercial artworld, Colab artists gravitated towards the burgeoning alternative scene, attending and sometimes participating in exhibitions at 112 Greene Street, Artists Space, the Clocktower (earlier the Idea Warehouse and later PS 1), the Kitchen, and 3 Mercer Street (a tiny studio storefront run by Stefan Eins, who eventually joined Colab). One early center of activity was the so-called Fine Arts Building at 105 Hudson Street in Tribeca, a nearly vacant office building that, in a calculated strategy, was rented to artists for studios and fledgling art dealers for galleries. After two years of glamorous action had put the building and the "Tribeca" (triangle below Canal Street) area on the New York map, 105 Hudson Street was swiftly and completely co-opted to the affluent.
Colab members were closely involved in the emerging new music and nightclub scene. Like the artists, young musicians faced a similar market freeze-out from which they escaped in the punk rock and new wave explosion that centered around CBGB's and Max's Kansas City. The musicians' successful self-promotion within a congenial climate of new styles and ideas catalyzed the visual arts scene. X Magazine was printed with money raised at a benefit featuring new art rock bands; the filmmakers in Colab used rock songs and stars in their movies; and Colab participated in the "Punk Art" show in Washington, D.C.
The confrontational performance styles and "fuck you" life mode of many musicians echoed the unsettled political developments in Europe. Imagery and themes relating to the "terrorist" movements in Germany and Italy popped up in films played in the nightclubs, in segments of the "All Color News," and in the pages of X Magazine. Overtly political posters appeared on the streets, vying for attention with the flyers of rock bands. Artists blended their infatuation with sensationalism and political rhetoric with personal ambition and populist goals. Like the musicians, the artists sought to forge their own outlets and audiences through cable television, low-cost multiple artworks, and different kinds of exhibitions. Stefan Eins, who had shown many Colab artists at his 3 Mercer Store, moved to the South Bronx to set up Fashion/Moda in 1978. Together with Joe Lewis, artist and editor of Appearances Magazine, Eins put on exhibitions that mixed the indigenous arts of the area (notably graffiti) with the contemporary impulses of young artists from downtown Manhattan, primarily performance, installation, and painting.
By 1979 the New Cinema was in full swing, premiering new super-8 feature length films made with low budgets and homegrown stars. Nightclubs, particularly the newly opened Mudd Club, served as important meeting grounds for artists and aficionados. In Tribeca, events on Warren Street -- the "Salute to Creative Youth" exhibition and a series of performances -- coalesced the downtown scene. Artists Space put on early shows of Super-8 film and new music (one of which resulted in the Brian Eno produced "No New York" record album). Artists Space also handed out money under an independent exhibition fund which encouraged loft shows, and Colab artists inaugurated a weird mix of exhibitions, performances and socializing which took place under the guise of theme exhibitions. The "Batman" (organized by Diego Cortez) and "Dog" shows (by Robin Winters) at 591 Broadway were followed by "Income & Wealth" (by Colen Fitzgibbon) and the "Manifesto" show (by Jenny Holzer) at a storefront on Bleeker Street. These exhibitions established a new style of art show: non-curated, densely packed shows on oddball themes, including art by children and the anonymous, all mingled to demonstrate a visual milieu.
Even as they generated this scene, artists were being removed from it physically by the process of revaluation of rental properties called "gentrification." As artists of modest means were forced out of Soho and Tribeca by skyrocketing rents, many turned to the Lower East Side, a largely slum neighborhood south of 14th Street and east of the Bowery, also known by its Spanglish name of Loisaida or Alphabet City after its avenues A, B, C, and D. Many Colab members moved to Ludlow and Stanton Streets, and it was there that the East Village Eye newspaper was started in 1979, signaling the emerging self-consciousness of the area's new residents. The housing stock in this traditional immigrant neighborhood had greatly deteriorated, the result of bank redlining and landlord disinvestment, epidemic arson and abandonment. But at the same time a new group of real estate speculators were moving on the neighborhood, abetted by the city government's planning and policy, setting the stage for a new wave of gentrification.
The "Real Estate Show" was organized in response to the harsh economic realities facing tenants in New York. It was an illegal exhibition, sited in a vacant city-owned building on Delancey Street. The exhibition fused the theme show notion with a romanticized attitude about aggressive confrontation with the powers-that-be. The show was stridently political, art fused with rhetoric, and all pitched to the news media. The idealism of the show and the sheer excitement of the action attracted scores of artists, going well beyond Colab, many of whose members were leery of the show, fearing that the illegal act of squatting would jeopardize the group's federal and state funding.
The "Real Estate Show" was the most publicized group exhibition of this period. A street corner press conference outside the padlocked show drew reporters from three newspapers and two magazines as well as the visiting German artists Joseph Beuys. The city felt compelled to negotiate with a group of artists who appeared to represent a political force. The eventual result of these talks was ABC No Rio, an abandoned storefront at 156 Rivington Street which the city offered as a compromise. (At this writing, nearly five years later, 125 Delancey still stands vacant and unused.)
The new gallery, the spoils of the "Real Estate" show fracas, got off to a slow start. Meanwhile the groundswell of the '80s was coming to a head. In June of 1980, Collaborative Projects mounted an exhibition in a four-storey former bus depot and massage parlor at 41st Street and Seventh Avenue discovered by John Ahearn and Tom Otterness. Hundreds of artists made site works and brought pieces, creating a funhouse environment which reflected the immediate neighborhood, Times Square, New York City's notorious center of sex, drugs, crime and sleaze. The "Times Square Show" was a sensation, a watershed exhibition which outstripped all previous efforts in ambition, creativity, and subsequent publicity. Nightly performances made it almost like a month-long party, coalescing the diverse new art energy, revealing it to a broad new public and to the artists themselves. In the two years that followed, the form of the large-scale exhibition in a disused building at a public location was repeated in the "Ninth Street Survival" show at an abandoned school on the Lower East Side (called "El Bohio," and run by the CHARAS community development group), the "Gowanus Monumental Artyard" in a 19th-century munitions factory in Brooklyn's canal zone, and the "Coney Island" show on a pier at the famous amusement park.
Artists made their move in the nightclub scene as more bars offered venues to performance, film and video artists, and soon began one-night exhibitions of visual art as well. The established alternative spaces soon highlighted the new scene: the New Museum sponsored shows by Fashion/Moda, featuring the new graffiti art of the South Bronx; ex-Colab member Diego Cortez put together "New York/New Wave" at P.S. 1 in Queens; the Kitchen hosted "Dubbed in Glamor," three performance evenings organized by Art-Rite Magazine publisher Edit deAk.
As the new generation of New York artists began to make their mark, ABC No Rio, located in the burgeoning artists' community of the Lower East Side, was to play an important role. At first, establishing the gallery was an uphill battle. The building had suffered years of neglect; rainwater, sewage, and falling plaster had driven out the previous tenants who had tried to run a beauty parlor. No Rio was a magnet for the derelicts of the community and a thoroughfare for rats living in the granaries of the matzoh factory next door. Around the corner was a large open-air drug supermarket with heroin dealers hawking their wares and junkies disappearing into "shooting galleries" in abandoned buildings.
No Rio was frequently broken into and robbed, sometimes several times a week. The volunteer artist/administrators -- Bobby G, Rebecca Howland, Alan Moore and Christy Rupp -- were caught between the realities of the ghetto and their own ambitions, both artistic and political.
The first exhibition was organized by Jon Keller, a homesteading artist and carpenter. Called "Artists for Survival," the show was part of a Lower East Side disarmaments festival. Shortly thereafter, the visiting San Francisco Poster Brigade mounted a show of international mail art on the theme of May Day. As the space came to life, No Rio took its own momentum as artists, undeterred by lack of funds, put on exhibitions and a series of one-night events, "Poetry, Video and Music," usually including loud music and liquor. John Morton proposed "Suicide, Murder & Junk"; Bobby G spotlighted present day "Absurdities"; Neddi Heller's "Suburbias" revealed the attitude of many artists toward their roots. Most shows were informally curated with open invitations and first-come, first-served hanging. Openings were always well-attended, often jam-packed, as No Rio became a social center. The stir attracted many area residents, and many became regular visitors. Between shows the space was used as a workshop by painters and sculptors, and groups of people working together to make murals, sets and props, or holding "painting parties" for theme shows.
Rooted in the directed political action of the "Real Estate Show" and clearly a minority institution the barrio, No Rio was dedicated to the idea of interactive art -- an attempt to address realities in the neighborhood and to attract community residents into its activities. No Rio's two prime operating tenets were an open-hour policy, the idea of the free space, that the gallery was at the disposal of any who could use it; and open meetings, Monday night sessions where all decisions were made. At meetings, the co-directors maintained a low profile, still every artist who intended to work at No Rio learned of the gallery's genesis and rationale. Between theory and practice, direction and openness, conflicts often arose. The politics of No Rio could not retain the idealistic edge that its origins in the "Real Estate Show" had led many to expect. Still, the current of interactive art remained strong and continuous.
No Rio was the home of the theme show, exhibitions spotlighting social issues and subject matter. These were message shows, putting content before style in an artworld evolving away from formalist concerns. Artists not only brought work from their studios but made art specifically for the theme. Artists confronted the world, heightening awareness of the way art can reflect truths and function as propaganda. Other artists developed methods of working based on direct interaction: Rupp's "Animals Living in Cities" commingled live animals with the artworks on display; Tom Warren's "Portrait Studio" offered dollar depictions to passers-by; Marc Miller and Bettie Ringma collected drawings and stories, asking their subjects to bare their "Unforgettable Moments"; Jody Culkin worked with neighborhood children to build her "Tube World." By broadening their art these artists expanded the art audience.
As a center of interactive art, No Rio was to some extent modeled on the South Bronx space Fashion/Moda. Here John Ahearn began making casts of area residents. The South Bronx was ripe with indigenous arts and hidden cultural production, and Fashion/Moda successfully exposed graffiti to the mainstream artworld. Group Material, which opened on East 13th Street in 1980, showed objects of decoration culled from homes in their neighborhood. The collective went on to weld the interactive idea with a heightened awareness of the political utility of the art object.
At their most idealistic, these arts groups sought to make ethnic culture, political analysis, and ideas about social justice fashionable components of the mainstream. In this they differed from the alternative spaces which encouraged artistic experimentation in a noncommercial ambiance, but were styled after the model of museums and commercial galleries. On the other hand, community arts groups like CityWalls concerned themselves entirely with the social function of art; springing from the left, these groups disdained mainstream culture, and many artists within them spurned the artworld. PADD (Political Art Documentation and Distribution), with affinities to trade unions and political organizations, concerns itself with discussion, disseminating information (primarily through its newsletter Upfront), and supporting large-scale protest with topical art works.
Many who read this book [ABC No Rio Dinero] may be seeking an explication of the current art boom in the East Village, which has seen the opening of dozens of new galleries in the last few years. As it was in the `60s, the East Village has again become a Mecca for artists all over the world, and the heavy promotion of this scene has subsumed the art and ideas of many featured in this book. We do not claim pre-eminence for No Rio, nor that everything that took place there was artistically significant or politically correct. The ideals of interactivity and a sense of social mission have often been in conflict with No Rio's open door policy. This book emphasizes the idealistic nature and interactive aspects of art at No Rio. We have not veered to include the stars of the moment, nor even the most current and more sophisticated art of those we do include. What we hope to show, through the relatively undoctored succession of contemporary accounts (including those unfriendly), is a true-to-life picture of a place concerned with the relationship of art and artists to social reality, of artists who try to make work that is not voyeuristic but engaged.