All tomorrow’s parties
In 1980s New York, Hermosa resident Patti Astor and the Fun Gallery brought graffiti from the street to the studio. With a slate of upcoming local shows, the art world is still trying to keep up
by Ryan McDonald
In 1992, the New York Times dispatched reporter Rick Marin to Seattle to write about “grunge,” the fashion and music style blanketing the country in faded flannel and moody lyrics. Marin stopped by Sub Pop Records, the label that had released Nirvana’s first record. He chatted up receptionist Megan Jasper and collected a list of slang used by people in the scene. Marin’s “Lexicon of Grunge” appeared as a sidebar in his Sunday Styles story, and included terms like “bound-and-hagged,” which was code for staying in on a Friday or Saturday night, and “lamestain” an uncool person.
The real lamestain, it turned out, was the media. About a year after Marin’s article, a graduate student at the University of Chicago revealed that the Times had been had. Thomas Frank, who would go on to write “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” and is now a political analyst, contacted Jasper, who “readily admitted” that she’d lied. Frank concluded that the Times had been so eager to get grunge down on paper that it had abandoned common sense: “Convinced that ‘all subcultures speak in code,’ the Times went looking for some colorful argot from the Seattle rock scene, and Ms. Jasper was only too happy to oblige them with some of the most inspired fake slang outside of Monty Python.”
Contrast this with the journalistic effort on display in “Wild Style,” released in 1983 and widely considered the first hip-hop film. Patti Astor plays Virginia, a reporter from the Village Voice assigned to write about the graffiti artists inking New York City’s walls and subway trains. She seeks out Zoro, played in the movie by real-life graffiti writer Lee Quiñones. In one scene, Astor is meandering through a bombed-out section of the South Bronx when her car gives out. She is soon surrounded by a dozen kids from the neighborhood. She puts on a veneer of street-smart toughness before one of them asks if she is the journalist in search of the taggers.
“Yes, I’m looking for the graffiti artists!” Astor says excitedly.
“We are all graffiti artists!” replies the chorus of street urchins. They then push her stalled car the rest of the way. Though the film is lighter on plot than rap battles and breakdancing, it’s clear that Virginia gets the story.
If the Seattle incident is a cautionary tale about the anthropological gaze, then Astor’s story is one of getting in and fitting in. In the years surrounding the filming of “Wild Style,” she ran the Fun Gallery, the first gallery to open in New York’s East Village, and among the first anywhere to give one-man and one-woman shows to graffiti artists, many of whom were just “kids from the neighborhood” like the ones she encounters in “Wild Style.” The Fun Gallery upended the Big Apple’s fine art establishment and gave early exposure to street writers like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, whose works have since reached the summit of critical and commercial regard.
Today Astor lives in Hermosa Beach, and this Saturday marks the beginning of “Fun (in the sun),” a show at ShockBoxx art gallery on Cypress Avenue featuring original work inspired by her career. Such a call for submissions has left artists pretty wide open, because Astor was at the center of what is arguably the most mythologized time and place in American art. The April 22 issue of T, the New York Times Style Magazine — launched, alas, more than a decade after the grunge speak affair — was devoted to New York City from 1981 through 1983, three years the Times said “shaped the culture.” A timeline in the issue includes a notch for the opening of the Fun Gallery in June of 1981, sandwiched roughly between the very first Sonic Youth gig, at Astor haunt Club 57, and the on-air debut of MTV, where she unsuccessfully pitched herself as a VJ.
Of course, the cultural ferment of this period in New York also happened amidst omnipresent street crime, stark racial tensions, and an emerging AIDS epidemic. The East Village where the Fun Gallery sat is now home to chic bars and staggeringly expensive apartments, but at the time it had rubble-strewn vacant lots just like the South Bronx.
Like seemingly every New Yorker who was around in those days, Astor laments the changes and considers the gentrified city all but finished as a cultural laboratory. Surely some of this is a kind of romanticism that skips over the everyday struggles that the conditions of the era imposed. (Don’t try to improve bad neighborhoods — they produce so many great rappers!) But it is also rooted in the serendipitously forking path she took to the focal point of the art world, one it might no longer be possible to take. She meets Haring while walking down the street one night; he asks to take her picture. She meets Basquiat on a set of stairs at the Mudd Club and endears herself to him by making fun of his hair. She has her first “art event” when Futura 2000 does a mural inside her apartment; fellow scenesters come over for barbecue.
Street photographer Drew Carolan got to know Astor in this period. Carolan, an East Village native whose work will appear in the ShockBoxx show, described the mood of the era as one of “accessibility,” and compared the Fun Gallery to “a treehouse.” “You’d just be walking down the street and run into Matt Dillon. It was low key, but great energy,” Carolan said.
Astor’s happenstance life has given her an almost populist outlook and leads to an unselfish account of her own role in the scene. Her emphasis on simply being there comes across as a refreshing contrast to the colonial sensibilities of the collectors and gallerists who would claim to have “discovered” graffiti art.
Next weekend, the Pacific Coast Gallery on Pier Avenue will be showcasing another side of Astor’s legacy, screening some of the underground films in which Astor starred. In a conversation, Pacific Coast founders Matthew and Monica Welch revealed that they had both lived in New York City, and at one point each had an apartment within a block of the original Fun Gallery. Monica recalled attending a party at the Whitney Museum of American Art in honor of Keith Haring’s ad campaign for Absolut Vodka. Astor perked up. She had, of course, been there too. So was Andy Warhol, Astor said, and bartenders were doling out heavy pours of Absolut on every floor of the museum. It was, she recalled, “the last great night out.”
“All of a sudden, major brands like Absolut were using gay artists,” she said, fighting back tears for Haring, who created a number of public service works about safe sex, and died of complications related to AIDS in 1990. “But Keith kind of forged his own way. People like him, they would have made it no matter what. And that’s what makes the Fun Gallery so interesting: It wasn’t just me. It could be anyone.”
Astor self-published an autobiography in 2012. It is conversational in tone, sparsely punctuated, and full of sentences like this one: “I don’t know if you have ever tried to casually carry a laundry bag full of M16s up four flights of tenement stairs but believe me it’s no easy task.” The writer Haynes Johnson has characterized the 1980s as a time when America was “sleepwalking through history.” Reading Astor’s autobiography, one gets the sense of a woman hitchhiking through history, who happens to have been picked up by Bonnie and Clyde.
Astor has a habit of referring to her actions in the context of what a “proper lady” would do, a legacy of her traditional ‘50s upbringing in Ohio. She left the Midwest for New York City to attend college in 1968, but got swept up in the antiwar movement and didn’t stay in school. She joined Students for a Democratic Society, swallowed her share of teargas, and beat a felony rioting rap with a lawyer she claims to have paid in marijuana. With the war over, she went to San Francisco, then Paris, then returned to New York in 1975, just in time to catch the exploding punk scene. She often wandered down to CBGB, the famed Bowery music venue, where she took in some of the first shows from acts like the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Television.
At the time, Astor was set on becoming a film star. She took classes at Lee Strasberg’s acting school, where she met “Rebel Without a Cause” director Nicholas Ray and a young Jim Jarmusch. She landed her first roll — in a movie with Blondie singer Debbie Harry — after her friend, Eric Mitchell answered an ad in the Village Voice and got her a role as well.
Astor continued to rack up film credits, and achieved the oxymoronic status of “underground film star.” She and Mitchell again appeared together in “The Foreigner,” one of the films that will be screening at Pacific Coast Gallery, before Mitchell directed her in “Underground U.S.A.”
The film featured actors who had been part of Warhol’s “Factory,” and screened for more than six months at St. Mark’s Cinema. Among those to catch “Underground U.S.A.” during its lengthy run was Frederick Brathwaite, better known as Fab Five Freddy.
Brathwaite, who co-starred in “Wild Style,” and would go on to serve as the original host of Yo! MTV Raps was a Brooklyn-born graffiti artist. In a “New Yorker” profile a decade later, Brathwaite described himself as cultural “synthesizer,” and he was one of the first people to present graffiti, break dancing and rap music under the cultural umbrella of hip-hop. (In the profile, writer Susan Orlean referred to Brathwaite as “the coolest person in New York.”) Brathwaite had the further idea that this emerging movement might be of interest not just to the people “uptown” in Brooklyn and the Bronx, but to those “downtown” in Manhattan. Brathwaite met Astor at an after-party at a writer’s apartment, floated the idea of opening a gallery.
“I knew she’d be a good dealer because she had personality. When I suggested it to her, she just laughed,” Brathwaite wrote in an email.
Carlo McCormick, an art critic who curated a seminal show at New York University documenting the city’s art scene between 1974 and 1984, said that key moments of cultural exchange like the meeting of Astor and Fab Five often took place in the wee small hours of the morning.
“This was a time when nightlife was one of the strongest engines in the cultural community. All these artists hung out at clubs: musicians, dancers, painters. For a lot of the artists, they were much more comfortable at night,” McCormick recalled.
Things started coming together. Astor kept in touch with Brathwaite and lobbied him to help her get her a part in “Wild Style.” Meanwhile, Astor took a job at a roommate referral service, where she met Bill Stelling. A few months later, Stelling told her he had secured a space in the East Village that he thought would be ideal for a gallery.
At the time, the New York art world was centered on clusters of galleries in Soho and Midtown. These places, McCormick said, had a “rigorous and academic air that was stultifying for the new generation of artists,” and graffiti would not have fit in these haughty circles.
“There was no chance of any of these artists walking into somewhere in Soho or 57th Street and them saying, ‘Oh great, we were just looking for someone who is 23 and who has never shown before,’” he said.
Brathwaite put it more simply.
“Instead of white wine, white walls and only white people at art exhibits, we brought multiethnic, colorful flavor never before seen in the art world,” he said.
Many of the artists who would show at Fun were indeed blacks and Latinos from the outer boroughs of New York. And while Astor said she and Stelling helped “break the color line” in the fine art world, that hadn’t been the goal when they started.
“I suppose we did, but we didn’t necessarily set out to. It was all just so organic,” Stelling said in an interview.
Up for grabs
“There is no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it. Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh boat,” wrote Rene Ricard, an art critic who also appeared alongside Astor in “Underground U.S.A.” Ricard wrote those words in “The Radiant Child,” an essay in the December 1981 issue of Artforum that touted the work of graffiti writers like Haring and, especially, Basquiat. The essay appeared as the once-radical decision to put graffiti artists in galleries began to look increasingly savvy. Major collectors began stopping by the Fun Gallery, their stretch limousines standing out among the grit of the East Village like cruise liners docked at a jetty.
Ricard was referring to the fact that although Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings are now fixtures of art history textbooks, he was neglected, even scorned, during his life, and sold a grand total of one painting. But Van Gogh, Ricard insisted, was an isolated case. Buyers and sellers of art were terrified of passing over the next great thing, far out of proportion to the likelihood of it actually happening. “The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one,” he wrote.
Just what the unrecognized genius might look like, however, was changing rapidly. McCormick said that, along with bringing graffiti into the mainstream, the Fun Gallery also ushered in “the art market’s cult of youth.”
“Before it was, ‘Great come back in two years, then show us what you’re doing,’” he said in imitation of a typical response from gallerists to a younger artist in the 1970s. “No one was thinking to grab Jean-Michel or Keith when they’re 21.”
Grab, indeed. The sudden stardom of a new crop of unknown artists — many of whom lacked even an art school background in the world of business and some of whom were destitute or homeless — met a growing speculator’s market. The result was an increasingly possessive relationship between collectors and artists. Astor grew uneasy with what Ricard characterized as a sense that “We are no longer collecting art we are buying individuals.”
Astor freely acknowledges she’s a bit of a pariah in today’s art world, which may have something to do with her habit of referring to major gallerists with four-letter words. There is, in turn, a segment of that art world that would call this sour grapes about artists jumping from her stable to theirs, or her failure to cash in on the extraordinary profits now flowing from sales of people she showed. (Last year, Basquiat’s “Untitled(Skull)” was sold to a Japanese clothing tycoon for $110 million; Astor, typically full of praise for the artist, derided it as a “shit painting.”)
This accusation, however, is tough to square with the almost maternal instincts she displayed. It was all too common for her to see a young artist blow his first payday on drugs, so when Astor paid younger artists at the Fun Gallery, the two worked on a plan for what to do with the money. Often, she would call the artist’s parents.
“We were all learning while doing, because most of us had very little experience, and we knew we were up against a huge machine filled with sharks,” Brathwaite said. “Some of the graffiti artists were totally naive and being taken advantage of, and Patti was tough and protective when it came to that.”
Astor also remains upset at the way more established gallerists exoticized African-American artists she cultivated, undercutting what she judged to be very real fine art credentials. She would spend hours in the Fun Gallery with artists she was showing or considering, talking about technique. Astor recalled passing a whole day with Dondi, a Brooklyn-born graffiti writer who had joined gangs as a kid to avoid getting beaten up. Dondi was so eager to talk about his work, she said, “because nobody else was listening.”
Astor continues to be pricked by thorns sprouted on the artists whose careers she watered. She received a cease-and-desist letter from the estate of Keith Haring, ordering her to halt sales of a T-shirt using art Haring created for a show at the Fun Gallery in 1983. (Inquiries to the Keith Haring Foundation and an attorney who has previously represented the estate were not immediately returned.) These interactions are still potent enough to make Astor’s voice quiver. She estimates that as many as three-fourths of the artists she showed at the Fun Gallery are now dead, many of them taken before their time; Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988, at 27. But, citing a vow she made to them when they first signed, she still feels a sense of responsibility. Ultimately, Astor’s sadness appears to be driven more by an incredulousness at the impersonal frigidity of the art business than the stymying of her ability to cash in on artists she once knew. (Fewer than four dozen of the Haring T-shirts were printed.)
“No one ever says to me ‘I’m sorry we have to do this. I realize that these were your best friends, and they’re all gone,’” she said.
Last year, before the Fun show had even been proposed, ShockBoxx co-founders Mike Collins and Laura Schuler christened the gallery by inviting local artists Josh Barnes and LG Givot to attack the walls with spray paint. Embracing a medium that Astor helped bring to the world was a statement about the kind of art the gallery would display and the kind of place it would be.
For the burgeoning Hermosa art scene, Astor’s show represents a chance to connect with trends in art that have already had a deep influence on it. Cypress, which is also home to Resin Gallery and Studio 637, has been Hermosa’s light industrial district for decades. It’s hard to put a finger on why, but the culture houses there benefit from the proximity of power tools and industrials chemicals, in the same way that the Fun Gallery’s location in the then-dangerous East Village eventually made it a place to be seen.
Collins said he first met Astor at a show he helped put on at Harmony Yoga several years ago. He’d heard of her but had not understood the reach of her career. After some follow-up research, he began to sense an affinity between her career and the happenings at ShockBoxx.
“I think our shows have naturally been in the spirit of those that she had at the Fun Gallery: loose but relevant, with edgy topics,” Collins said in an interview.
One of the Fun Gallery’s subtler accomplishments was that it built a scene while remaining rooted in the place that hosted it. Even when the limousines carrying big-name art dealers began rolling in, Astor never shut out the “kids from the neighborhood.” (In one memorable incident, Astor recalled a crew of “homeboys” following around Paul Simon as he mulled buying a Basquiat, humming “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.”)
From the very beginning of ShockBoxx, Collins has given credit to the artisans that preceded him on Cypress, but he is also excited by what he describes as a decided swing in the energy of the area. Recent visits to Cypress on the opening night of a show at ShockBoxx or Resin bear this out: Cypress is indeed a scene. The crowd is diverse for Hermosa, with a wide range of ages, ethnicities and zip codes represented. People sip beers kept in ice chests or donated by upstart breweries, and enjoy the occasional taco truck, but the vibe is leagues away from Pier Plaza. The art on the walls is only the starting point of conversation, and Hermosa’s weather is mild enough that the energy often drifts out onto the driveways and the calm, mostly traffic-free pavement.
Yet as pleasant as an evening on Cypress can be, as a scene it is decidedly more respectable than renegade. Openings at ShockBoxx and Resin attract City commissioners and councilmembers, who cited the spread of galleries as a reason not to meddle with the area’s zoning when they reworked the city’s General Plan last year. And no one would mistake the East Village of the 1980s for present-day Hermosa: it lacks marginalized chaos critical to an art scene with such a sizeable chip on its shoulder. Perhaps most importantly, nowhere in Hermosa, not the commercial spaces that could hold the art nor the houses and apartments that might house its makers, is space even close to affordable. According to City Feet, an online commercial real estate network, spaces in the former E&B Natural Resources office, on the other side of Cypress from ShockBoxx and Resin, are between $2,200 and $4,300 per month. When the Fun Gallery opened in 1981, its monthly rent was $125, about $350 when adjusted for inflation. The gulf between those two prices is large enough to fit — or to hide — a great deal of artistic freedom.
What Hermosa’s developing art scene and the Fun Gallery ultimately do share is a quality that Astor and Stelling hit upon independently: a feeling of things unfolding without being forced, advancing more by momentum than agenda. (Astor said she was drawn to Cypress almost as soon as she moved to Hermosa six years ago.) Astor cites local photographer Brent Broza, who showed at Resin, as an “example of how to be a great artist,” for his work’s connection to a community, and the transparent joy he gets from taking photos. Be it New York or Hermosa, Astor said, it doesn’t take a sophisticate to sniff out a phony. What unites gallery-goers everywhere is a sense that something is happening, and that they happen to be a part of it.
“What organically comes up from the ground: that’s great art,” Astor said.