"Before Art was Street"
by Stephen Pang (re-published with permission from UNleashed Magazine)
If you Google
‘street art’ you will find no end of references. On Amazon alone there are over 4,000 books to choose from or you could drown in over 45 million Google search results. But, despite its visibility, street art is a relatively new art phenomenon with no formal training or career path. How quickly street art has been absorbed into pop culture and recognized by art galleries and institutions is a testament to its visual potency and the 'Art in the Streets'
exhibition at Los Angeles’ Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) is the latest endorsement of this prolific art form.
But where did this genre of art come from? The term ‘street art’ was, arguably, first coined in the late 70s and used to create a catch-all ‘super category’ for art whose only commonality was that it was displayed in public spaces, rather than behind the closed doors of the traditional art galleries. Public art, in itself, wasn’t new. What was new was the acceptance of street art by galleries, auction houses and museums.
In the late 70s, before Banksy, JR or Shepard Fairey, there was no street art, only aerosol graffiti. And it was a blight of the inner city, no more so than in its Mecca, New York City. To the establishment, the words ‘graffiti’ and ‘art’ were rarely uttered in the same breath. However, something changed in the early 80s. Out of that illegal graffiti scene emerged a few graffiti artists were breaking away from painting subway trains and exploring other venues for their art and trying to penetrate the established art gallery world in Manhattan. This is the period when uptown New York hustle met downtown Manhattan avant garde and two people who were instrumental in creating this cultural cocktail and channeling its energy were the graffiti artist, Fred Braithwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, and East Village queen, Patti Astor.
At the time, both were pursuing their artistic goals in different circles, but their entrepreneurial spirit and ability to make things happen united them. In 1981, at a screening of Patti’s punk rock art house film, ‘Underground U.S.A.’, Fab 5 Freddy introduced himself to Patti. Little did they know that this chance encounter would lead to the beginning of the Fun Gallery, the world’s most influential street art exhibition space, and be pivotal in developing the careers of so many of the world’s most renowned street artists.
At the time, Fab 5 Freddy was making conscious moves to infiltrate the art gallery world and transform his graffiti background into a career. “In the beginnings in the ‘80s I was not trying to offer myself as a graffiti artist because I didn’t see myself doing illegal graffiti when I was trying to make works on canvas. I wanted to be an artist and be in that space and it was something I initiated on my own and after I connected with Lee Quinones [of Wild Style fame] we had a big show in Rome in 1979 [at Claudio Bruni’s gallery].
“This is how I ended up on the downtown scene and meeting other art people (Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf) that became good friends of mine before the Fun Gallery…and we thought [the East Village] is a place where we could come together and make things happen.”
What Fab 5 Freddy and his peers had unknowingly created was the original social network. Instead of college students, this network was made up of a ‘new pocket of energy’ of fresh, passionate artists who were just coming onto the scene and were now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Patti Astor who was already well known on the East Village scene through her underground films. “Our scene, at that time, was a lot more cliquish…it was really, really a small scene…and you hung with each other and we didn’t venture too far outside our realm. In the areas of the East Village and the Lower East Side is where you would really do well.”
Patti Astor explains how unique the East Village was in the ‘70s and ‘80s and how it constantly reinvented itself and never stood still, “…there were three separate eras to the East Village culture. When I got there [in 1975] the big thing was going to [the club] CBGBs to see the local bands Blondie, Talking Heads, Television and Ramones. The next thing was the film-making and Mudd Club era – I made my first film, ‘Underground U.S.A.’, in 1976 - and that period carried on through to 1981…when the art thing happened.”
At this time, the East Village scene was very white and hip hop had not yet percolated from the uptown neighborhoods into Manhattan. Patti explains, “You have to give Fred [Braithwaite] credit as the main ambassador for hip hop to get out of the South Bronx and out to the rest of the world
... It seems unbelievable now, but at that time no one downtown had heard about rap music, breakdancing or graffiti art….” However, the passion and creativity was instantly recognizable and Patti identified with hip hop. “It was pretty easy to get, what we did have in common was we don’t have any money so we’re going to create what we can out of what we have. There’s not much difference [between] making a $500 [budget] jungle romance super-eight movie and hooking up your turntables to a street light in the Bronx.”
|Fun Gallery sign recreated for MOCA (credit: Stevio)|
It was this shared do-it-yourself mentality that fueled the ‘accidental beginnings’ of the Fun Gallery. After Patti had befriended Fab 5 Freddy in ‘81 she met the graffiti artist Futura who shared a studio with Fab and Lee in Alphabet City, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Manhattan at that time. Futura offered Patti one of his paintings, but she decided against accepting it and instead asked Futura to paint a mural in her East Village living room since that would be a proper gift and couldn’t be bought or sold. This mural painting turned into a one-day art event with Kenny Scharf joining the party to customize the apartment’s appliances as Patti made potato salad for guests. This display of bleeding edge street art wasn’t a formal curation or collaboration of street art styles – it was just friends getting together and creating something out of nothing.
|Futura c. 1983 (credit: Bonhams)|
This was the first of many occasions that Patti attracted the attention of the art world. Patti recalls the day, “The big shocker at this particular event was as we looked out of my living room window at the bums sat on garbage cans we see Jeffrey Deitch (art buyer and now director of MOCA in Los Angeles) and James Curtis, better known as Diego Cortez (curator, art critic and MVP of the downtown scene), step out of a cab and that’s how I met Jeffrey [Dietch.]
After the first show, Patti Astor wanted a more dedicated venue and she heard about a small 8 foot by 25 foot space on East 11th Street from her friend Bill Stelling, who became her partner in the Fun Gallery. This new gallery had no name at the time of the first show (by artist Steven Kramer) in August 1981. In true democratic style Patti said that each artist could choose the name of the gallery for their show. It wasn’t until the second show that Kenny Scharf came up with the name that would live on forever…the ‘Fun Gallery’.
However, the Fun Gallery wasn’t the only game in town in the early ‘80s. The city was embracing other spaces which were less white and exclusive and more inclusive of the surrounding communities. Speaking about Fashion Moda in the Bronx and ABC No Rio in the Lower East Side, Fab 5 Freddy explains, “Just think about [them] as alternative spaces which were opened up by some radical artists and activists…they were trying to set up an alternative to the established art world that was doing boring, lame stuff.”
|Art Forum (credit: Arcanabooks)|
After several one-man shows (by artists Fab 5 Freddy, Kiely Jenkins, Futura, Jane Dickson, Dondi White and Arch Connelly and Lee) and Rene Ricard’s article in Art Forum magazine, the Fun Gallery relocated to a larger space nearby on East 10th Street in Fall ’82. Kenny Scharf opened in September, with Keith Haring showing in February ’83. At its height, the Fun Gallery was attracting a record crowd of 800 people to the East Village.
But, this was the beginning of the end of the scene
. By 1983 over 25 galleries had opened over a 12 block radius and the demand for space caused rents to skyrocket. What had began as the antithesis of the established SoHo galleries like Mary Boone and Leo Castelli was, increasingly, starting to resemble them. This combined with the faddish nature of art collectors and unscrupulous gallery owners made it difficult to keep the Fun Gallery dream alive. “We used to call them the art world barracudas…the art advisors who were constantly looking for the next big thing.” In 1985, the Fun Gallery closed its doors.
Over 25 years on, Jeffrey Deitch’s move to MOCA has reunited the East Village clique who has descended on the West Coast for the ‘Art in the Streets’ exhibition that opens at Los Angeles’ MOCA this Spring. Deitch is at the helm, and is joined by author and producer, Roger Gastman, and curator and film director, Aaron Rose. Patti Astor will co-curate the museum’s ‘80s section and Fab 5 Freddy joins her as a contributing consultant to the show. Patti describes the moment when the idea for a celebration of the Fun Gallery became reality, “I had been pursing Jeffrey [Deitch] for quite some time to do a Fun Gallery show in conjunction with my [yet to be published] book and finally he said ‘Let’s do it! Let’s have a Fun Gallery within the [MOCA] show.’”
So, what can we expect to see at the MOCA show? Patti explains, “There are three rooms and I have a recreation of the Fun Gallery façade. I have the front window of the building…it looks really beautiful. I unbelievably got the same Jean-Michel Basquiat painting that was in the front window when we had the Jean-Michel show…no one thought I’d be able to get that painting, including me!
|Fun Gallery original crew installation (credit: Stevio)|
“The front room is the Fun Gallery original crew who are the artists who had one-man shows (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Zephyr, Kenny Scharf, Fab 5 Freddy, Dondi, Lee, Futura 2000, Kiely Jenkins and Jane Dickson.) Then I have a Kenny Scharf Black Light ‘closet’ room and I have the Fun Gallery Old School room…it refers to the pioneers of the artists who painted the trains [including Phase 2 and Blade.]”
|Fab 5 Freddy @ MOCA press day (credit: Stevio)|
Fab 5 Freddy reflected on the upcoming MOCA show and the artist who followed the 80’s scene, “I think it’s good that a new group of artists have come in and found interesting ways to work on the street. It definitely follows a continuum…one thing couldn’t have happened without the other. That’s the critical thing to understand.”
The Art in the Streets exhibition runs from April 17 to August 8, 2011 at the Geffen Contemporary at Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It moves to the Brooklyn Museum in New York from March 30 to July 8, 2012.
Copyright 2011 by Stephen Pang/UNleashed Magazine.