Kicked Out of 1993

'Hey, you want to go out to galleries and shoot some tape?'

  • “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star” opens at the New Museum on Feb. 13 and runs through May 26.

    I remember 1973 well enough. I had graduated college the year before and moved downtown into a Tribeca loft ($220 a month) and, along with two pals, had started my own art magazine, using after hours the facilities of my day job, which was doing paste-up for The Jewish Week. I earned $6 an hour and had more money than I knew what to do with.

    I remember 1983, because that was the time of the East Village, when I lived on Ludlow Street (rent $150), was art editor of the East Village Eye, and showed, at Metro Pictures gallery in Soho, paintings of people kissing.

    And I remember 2003, though I don’t really have to, since by then Artnet Magazine was up and running; pretty much everything I had going on is archived online.

    But 1993, what do I remember from 1993? I can locate myself physically, in a ramshackle loft on Clinton Street ($500 a month or, later, nothing, as the owner had no C of O for the building and therefore couldn’t legally collect rent—a typical New York real estate story). I was a single father who took his 11-year-old daughter to school before going to the offices of Art in America on Broadway at Prince Street, where I had a part-time freelance job as a news editor. In 1993, I was poor.

    My office was a gray-carpeted windowless cubicle filled with books, magazines, files and all manner of papers. There I opened mail and read the newspaper, or newspapers (The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times). Occasionally I would find out about things via the telephone, or at dinner parties. It was just-pre-internet; it’s hard to understand now how anybody got any news at all.

    I enjoyed the occasional company of a small group of freaks, bikers and beatniks—my friends—who would visit the office. Then as now I could count on them for whatever bits of genius might come my way. That’s what editors do.

    My art dealer pal was Frank Bernarducci, a fearless advocate of fast cars and cool art, whom I first met in 1984, when he had a gallery in the East Village. As an artist and critic with an abiding fascination with art and money, I always think it’s a great time to be an art dealer, even during market downturns. Frank was “between galleries,” i.e. not working. “The ’80s art market boom was over and a lot of Neo-Ex art stars were scrambling,” Frank, who is now a partner in Bernarducci-Meisel Gallery, recalled recently. “Basquiat and Warhol were dead”—you could even say their reputations were flagging, hard as it might be to believe today, thanks to a poorly received show of collaborative paintings at Tony Shafrazi on Mercer Street—”and the YBAs were on the rise, shifting the focus of contemporary art to London, at least somewhat.” By ’93, the art market was climbing out of the recession, though we didn’t necessarily know it. The following year would bring the first Gramercy Art Fair which kicked off our art fair era.

    In 1993, “I had time to do some things I’d always wanted to do,” Frank went on, “like write, and some things I didn’t, like get married.” He was working on a novel, an art-world potboiler about a dealer who ends up accused of murdering his beautiful girlfriend, who is also his most successful artist. Later on, in the early days of Artnet Magazine, which was launched in 1996, we serialized the beginning chapters, though I never got to find out how it ended.

    Another occasional visitor to the AiA office was Carlo McCormick, the art critic, curator and sometime nightclub doorman whose long orange hair and funky street fashion gave him the air of an Acid Prince, as High Times once dubbed him on its cover. A downtown bohemian of enduring bona fides—in the ’80s I would style myself as his “driver” on our late-night bar rounds—Carlo was even then unprofitably out of step with the mainstream avant-garde, championing such things as Alleged Gallery, whose first significant show, “Minimal Trix,” a show of skateboards, opened in 1993.

    “My life was pretty much centered on Ludlow Street back then, and Max Fish, which was at its peak,” Carlo said. His crew included Kembra Pfahler and her D.I.Y. hair-metal band, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black; filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, then at work on Dead Man with Johnny Depp; and Shepard Fairey, who had not yet hit the big time. It was the dawn of “street culture,” and despite the fact that, as Carlo put it, some “art people looked at me as if I were a pedophile hitting up the young boys,” it was a time when “graf artists and such were turning the tee shirt into a youth culture canvas where new designs and the ironic use of logos turned into this discrete visual language by which kids could signify to one another.”

    Another member of that same gang was Mike Osterhout, a Bay Area conceptualist who had relocated to the Lower East Side and launched the Church of the Little Green Man, a blasphemous kind of anti-cabaret that required communicants to ceremonially burn a dollar bill upon entry. I remember clearly his invocation when it came time for the sermon, the most dreaded part of the service—”brothers and sisters, there will be no sermon today.”

    Mike now lives in the sticks outside Rock Hill, N.Y., where he hunts deer and turkey and has an actual 19th century church building, where services continue. This August the congregation gathered to celebrate man’s best friend, the dog, an event that opened with an abstract bit of music produced by micing a big bone and giving it to a pit bull to gnaw on.

    In 1993, Mike remembered,  “I lived at 7 and C, worked the door at the Fish, lived with my crazy bitch girlfriend and was pretty miserable. Or did you want to know what you were doing? There I can’t help you.”

    Mike had written something for Interview magazine and had the idea to use this beat-up antique newsstand on the Prince Street side of the building as a kind of mini-museum—a foil to what was then the Guggenheim Soho, around the corner. It didn’t work out. “How the rich can hold onto every square inch and beat you down amazes me,” Mike said. The owner “wanted to control every aspect of that goddamned newsstand. I finally gave up in the idea.” Kenny Scharf did something there, and now it serves muffins.

    Probably the most idiotic thing that happened for me personally in 1993 began with a visit from Paul H-O, another Oakland refugee who rode motorcycles and was (and is) an all-around surf guru. Paul dropped by the office one day with a video camera and asked, “Hey, you want to go out to galleries and shoot some tape?”

    Paul would be producer, director, editor and co-star of what became Art TV Gallery Beat, a half-hour-long public access cable television show. We’d go to art galleries and make jokes—”what IS that?” was our reprise—and were often asked to leave. Paul put together a compilation of “great ejections.” I vividly remember Rob Storr asking me, sotto voce, in the lobby of the Marian Goodman Gallery building, “Aren’t you embarrassed?” Watching some of the footage now, I have to wonder why I wasn’t—particularly when I catch a glance of myself in a clown-like 555 Soul outfit.

    But then, what accomplishments we had! What exhibitions we reviewed!

    One of our first shoots was at Gagosian Gallery, then in spacious garage-like quarters on Wooster Street in SoHo, where Chris Burden had hung an oversized globe like a mammoth beehive, its gnarly surface covered with a network of toy train tracks. At the Dia Art Center, we visited an installation of giant rats by the German artist Katharine Fritsch. There we quoted art critic Roberta Smith, who had ventured in The New York Times that the circle of 16 outward-facing giant black rats, their tails joined into a large knot, were something of a new esthetic experience—a work that makes you feel like you’re about to be eaten.

    1993 was the year that Anselm Kiefer had his watershed show at Marian Goodman featuring, in the front gallery,  a huge pile of discarded canvases placed in a towering stack along with uprooted sunflowers. In the back was a heap of oversized gray books, purportedly masturbated over for years. It all had something to do with the end of an unhappy marriage.

    With an all-too-appropriate sense of noblesse oblige, Gagosian didn’t care if we taped in his gallery or not, but for Kiefer the camera was forbidden. Thus Paul’s then wife, Barbara Dahl, sneaked the camera into the gallery in her bag, shooting reality-show style through the purse’s narrow aperture.

    A similar ban on filming was in place at the opening of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, but the museum director’s, David Ross, whose practice it was to stand at the entrance to the museum greeting visitors, when asked if video was allowed, just gave us a wink. And thus we caught on tape the inimitable art historian Irving Sandler proclaiming, “the barbarians are at the gate!”

    The 1993 biennial was by far the most outstanding in recent memory, an iconographic carnival with multiple metaphors writ large inside and out. Parked at the curb in front of the Breuer Building was a red toy fire truck blown up to life size, properly announcing the esthetic conflagration within, the work of Charles Ray. Inside, the lobby gallery was filled with a self-contained room, practically vibrating with concentrated electrical voltage. It  was Chris Burden’s “Fist of Light,” a collection of lamps so powerful that the blazing light was blinding, or so the artist said. Admission was forbidden.

    Upstairs was the largest-ever puddle of fake plastic vomit, courtesy Sue Williams, and downstairs, in the basement space, the Puerto Rican artists Coco Fusco and Papo Colo had dressed in tribal gear, including war paint, and put themselves on display as natives inside a cage. Visitors could get a souvenir Polaroid of the scene for $1; somewhere I still have a custom photo of Ross himself posing with the two artists.

    Now thats what art is all about! Reviewing some of the Gallery Beat tapes with Paul at his Brooklyn studio, one thing about 1993 becomes eminently clear. We may have been stupid, but at least we were thin.

    editorial@observer.com