11:27 am Oct. 11, 2012
"We did it, motherfuckers!" Patti Astor yelled, before tearing off through the gallery to greet more of her guests.
Astor was celebrating the release of her new book, FUN... The True Story, at the Clic Bookstore and Gallery this past Saturday. She’s the co-founder of FUN Gallery—the first of the East Village galleries to open in the early '80s and the first, as she put it, to "introduce Black and Latino people into the art world.”
But at the outset, the FUN Gallery didn't really have a mission.
"One of the greatest art projects of all time was ’81 to ’85, the FUN Gallery," Astor said to me.
The gallery, an experiment by Astor and her partner Bill Stelling, represented the marriage of a few things, not least of which was a location in the East Village and a roster of artists who barely knew they were artists—the gallery mostly represented graffiti writers.
“SHARP wrote in my book, 'thank you for giving me my first show,'” Astor said, explaining what she gained from her experience at FUN. “That's all I need.”
The artist SHARP was a teenager when FUN opened, born and raised in the Bronx. He came to the signing, along with plenty of others who had the run of the East Village arts and nightlife scene in the late '70s and into the early '80s. The inclusion, since those days, of graffiti in the art canon still throws him a bit.
“This world didn’t really exist for me then,” SHARP said, referring to early East Village art scene. “I was in that world but not in this world. That world was the street, gang, graffiti. For all intents and purposes, even when I came into this world, the art world, it wasn’t really like I knew I was in the art world … I really felt peripheral. In '83 to '85 I was still actively in the other world and because the worlds overlapped it was even that much more confusing.
"I mean, at this time, we were all pretty high, so we didn’t know what was going on," he added.
Astor had moved to the East Village years earlier, in 1975, and quickly became immersed in the local scene. CBGBs was, for her, just the neighborhood bar, and Blondie and the Talking Heads just its house bands, but that all changed rapidly as artists stampeded into the area.
"I kinda see the whole East Village experience as: '75 to '77 was CBGB; '77 to '80 was the underground film scene; and the '80s was the art school."
"At CBGBs is where I met Amos Poe, who did this movie, Blank Generation, which is awesome ... and I met him and he cast me in my first film, Unmade Beds, the punk-rock remake of the famous Jean-Luc Godard movie, Reckless.”
FUN was Astor’s attempt to stake a claim in the evolving downtown milieu. She befriended artists, musicians, and filmmakers like Poe, and spent many a night at the Mudd Club, perhaps most famous for being the club Madonna frequented as a young aspiring singer in New York but to locals and scene-makers a seminal spot.
"And so the whole film-acting scene started and everybody from CBGBs and the bands started making movies," Astor said. "We were running around ... it was ridiculous. And they were all on Super 8 … And then what we did is we had a movie theater called the New Cinema which was on St. Marks Place. So we showed those movies there, and then Danceteria, Peppermint Lounge, and all those clubs would have videos screened."
And through her omnipresence, she made a fan.
"Fab 5 [Freddy] came up to me at Duncan Smith's party. He had dragged Futura and a couple other people down there and ... what you need to understand about this party, which was at a downtown loft, it was white walls, white wine, white people. And here's this dude in this porkpie and the Ray Bans—tall good-looking black guy…. He has a paper cake plate and goes 'Can I have your autograph?’ and I said, 'Of course, you are my new best friend!'”
Fab ended up introducing a host of fellow graffiti artists to Astor before 1981 when FUN was founded. Stelling had a space. She had her friends who were artists. Together, they had a gallery.
FUN became known for graffiti art. The uptown boys like Fab and Futura, as well as admirers like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat all had shows there. B-boys from the Bronx became fixtures in the scene.
"What Bill and I had in common with the hip-hop guys is we were making things up as we went along, and so were they," Astor said.
Astor and Stelling gave their artists free rein over the gallery. Early on, as the art dealers in Soho caught on to the graffiti movement, burgeoning stars like Scharf and Haring opted for new management. They still had shows at FUN, albeit far less lucrative ones.
"Bill and I were like 'Oh it's an artist gallery, everyone gets to do whatever they want,' so even when we had the Keith Haring show, he brought in these leather things," Astor said, "And we sold like one Smurf."
"I was just thinking back to when we had this wonderful Jean-Michel [Basquiat] show," Stelling offered.
"And we were begging people to buy them!" Astor chimed in. Astor and Stelling didn't run their gallery as a business. Their aim, if it can be called that, was to provide an alternative to more established art dealerships.
"What we did that was really interesting, that really shocked the shit outta everybody is we did the Artforum ads," Astor said.
"We were thinking,” Stelling jumped in, “let's do it as a sort of fuck you and do an ad in the most prestigious art magazine in the world next to all these pristine ads... Alex Katz and all. We had these ridiculous drawings... was it Fab who did a champagne glass?"
FUN boomed for a time, but tastes eventually evolved away from them. Astor finally closed the gallery in 1985, after Stelling had already moved on a year earlier.
But many of the old gang were on hand to celebrate the gallery’s legacy with Astor and Stelling once again.
“Oh my God!” Astor screamed as she greeted old friends like Charles Ahearn, the director of the early chronicle of graffiti culture, Wild Style (in which Astor played a small part); Lisa Lee, one of the first female emcees, who also appeared in Wild Style; Lee Quinones, Kano, and other graffiti writers.
“Oh you want to know my favorite memory of FUN?” Stelling said. “It was the Keith Haring show ... Rock Steady Crew was breakdancing. Paul Simon was standing by himself in the corner. The Beastie Boys were over here. Andy Warhol was over there. The whole building was shaking because everyone is dancing. Out in the backyard somebody … had taken out all these papers and put it in the windows and they spelled out F-U-N.”
All photos by Rachel Darmody.
More by this author:
- For Charles Clough, a solo show that raises the question: What was the 'Pictures Generation' really?
- Steven Soderbergh describes his last good shot