|In the spring of 1980, sculptors
Tom Otterness and John Ahearn noticed a “for sale or rent” sign on an
abandoned building just off Times Square, at 41st Street and 7th
Avenue. They were members of Collaborative Projects, Inc., or Colab, an
artists’ organization whose approximately fifty members considered
themselves social activists as much as artists. Several months earlier,
members of Colab had worked with an affiliate group based in the Lower
East Side, ABC No Rio, to mount The Real Estate Show in an abandoned
building on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan without
permission of the landlord. The artists broke into the building on
December 30, 1979, more artists and community members joined them to
stage performances and install artworks, and three days later the
police evicted them at the bidding of the Department of Housing
Preservation and Development (Committee).
Although records were not kept to document the identity of the participants, the organizers deemed the show a success in terms of community outreach and involvement. The intention had been to draw attention to buildings that languished decrepit at a time when the need for affordable housing was dire: city offices and landlords seemed to conspire in favor of future profits rather than address the immediate needs of low-income New Yorkers. Colab recognized the 41st Street building as another site from which to critique systems of power as articulated in the control of property. Times Square was a vital if seedy public space that Mayor Abe Beame had targeted for renewal. With the exhibition they planned, Colab wanted to speak to and for the neighborhood’s multi-racial and economically-diverse population of residents, visitors, and contributors to legal and illegal enterprises. They negotiated with the building’s owner Mark Finkelstein, who agreed to lend them use of the space for a month in June (Deitch 60). Backed with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and a dozen other organizations, Colab solicited proposals for site-specific installations and received a landslide (Lippard 78).
John Ahearn explained the appeal of the Times Square site like this: “Times Square is a crossroads. A lot of different kinds of people come through here. There is a broad spectrum, and we are trying to communicate with society at large” (Sedgwick 21). The Times Square Show would investigate how art could communicate across race, class, and gender divides and represent a complex urban identity. Colab organized the show with the founders of an alternative space, Fashion Moda in the South Bronx, and benefitted from their experience practicing democratic outreach. Times Square was a potent realization of late capitalist culture, where an economy of signs dominated. In such an environment, themes of sex and violence in a raunchy hand-made style were most likely to stand out amidst the cacophony of commerce. Paintings based on pulp novel covers, drawings of policemen, prints of dollar bills and rats, and life-casts of the disenfranchised: these rough and ready images communicated futility and desperation. Thus, The Times Square Show established a model for collaboration and a mode for addressing a broad audience that shaped the downtown art world of the early 1980s.
Approximately one hundred artists contributed to The Times Square Show. Some were selected on the basis of their applications, others installed their work guerrilla-style in the unsecured building. There were no wall texts to identify the artists, who picked whatever available space appealed. Recognizable imagery dominated as did a do-it-yourself aesthetic; finish and craftsmanship were strenuously avoided. The “Money Love and Death” room featured pictures of money, guns, plates, and rats as wall paper;
Money, Love and Death Room, The Times Square Show. (Andrea Callard Papers, MSS156, Photobinder 1A, Series 1B. The Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University.)
a portrait gallery on the second floor included Mimi Gross’s relief sculptures of eight soldiers killed in a mission to save the hostages held in Iran and plaster casts of John Ahearn’s South Bronx neighbors.
Portrait Gallery, The Times Square Show. John Ahearn’s sculptures are above the door to the right. (Andrea Callard Papers, MSS156, Photobinder 1A, Series 1B. The Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University.)
There was a sink overflowing with dirty salt crystals and needles by Jamie Summers
Sculpture by Jamie Summers, The Times Square Show. (Andrea Callard Papers, MSS156, Photobinder 1A, Series 1B. The Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University.)
and a punching bag hung in front of a wall with chalk graffiti contributed by visitors. The fourth floor featured a “Fashion Lounge.” Charlie Ahearn, John’s brother, invited subway writers Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quinones to execute a graffiti mural by the nearby subway station (Ehrlich and Ehrlich). Tom Otterness made posters that looked like they came from a carnival midway, with terse come-ons like “Real Mermaid” and “Punching Bag” illustrated with crude line drawings. Music blared through the open doors onto the street. The only guideline Colab established was that the art comment on the Times Square environment: sex, money, and urban decay were the chief preoccupations.
In concerning themselves with the reality of Times Square, with its run-down buildings, sex workers, hustlers, and drug dealers, the Times Square Show’s organizers deliberately critiqued municipal designs to improve the neighborhood. The Times Square Show was intended to speak to and for those who would be displaced by planned renovations. New York City, like many other U.S. cities in the 1970s, was engaged in a campaign of urban revitalization to improve tax revenues and general quality of life for the employed middle-class. Times Square had been considered the star case of urban crisis for at least a decade: right in the center of Manhattan, it could not be ignored as marginal neighborhoods such as the South Bronx or the Lower East Side could. About one hundred businesses trading in sex and pornography had been closed (Goldstein 32), including the massage parlor at the Times Square Show site. In the spring of 1980, there were plans under consideration for a convention center, two hotels, and an urban theme park to be called the “City at 42nd Street” (Eliot 183-4). Ironically, given Colab’s intentions, at least one patron that The Times Square Show attracted saw an opportunity to use it as leverage to advance these plans. New York City cultural commissioner Henry Geldzahler promised potential sponsors for the Times Square Show that “Any support you could offer would…aid in the revitalization of Times Square” (Goldstein 32). But not all the artists embraced their role as urban renewers. Richard Goldstein reported in the Village Voice, “There is a vague foreboding among the artists in ‘The Times Square Show,’ a sense…that ‘we’re caught up in a big game plan.’…the trompe l’oiel approach to urban renewal might mean replacing the real thing with its representation, the real pornography with art about porn” (Goldstein 32). It is a commonplace that artists are the shock troops of gentrification and in the case of The Times Square Show, the mechanism was clearly visible to the artists involved: their rough, occasionally sexually explicit art with its veneer of cultural critique would be a viable substitute for the peep shows and live sex revues in the eyes of redevelopers. This acceptance was a source of conflict, as on the one hand the artists wanted to advance themselves professionally and economically, yet they also valued the gritty authenticity of Times Square as it then existed. Colab amended its role in service of powerful interests by also appealing and giving voice to populations who would be driven out as Times Square was remade for more affluent consumers.
The Times Square Show demonstrated the cultural possibilities that existed in the neighborhood already by attracting both art professionals and local workers through its doors. Unlike virtually all museums or commercial galleries, about half the participants were women and more than one-tenth were artists of color (Goldstein 31). Women and minorities were highly visible in the Times Square marketplace to a degree that they were not in the established art world institutions, so including their points of view was a sensible strategy for community outreach. Some women and black artists took the opportunity to engage in identity politics. Aline Mayer and Jane Sherry mounted a protest against violence against women which, they implied, was fueled by the pornography industry just outside The Times Square Show’s doors and reiterated in language used to demean women. They hung nightgowns and dresses slashed with “CUNT” and “WHORE” in paint, alongside collages of porn magazine photos of vaginas. One compelling element in their installation was a girl’s frock strewn with candy nipples, which alludes to the sexual exploitation of children, the infantilization of women, and cultural pressure on girls to take on the accoutrements of adult women, all of which were concerns that occupied feminists. Other artists explored a sex-positive feminist politics as a strategy of empowerment. Erika Van Dam, in the persona “Chi-Chi” performed a striptease in The Times Square Show lobby, wagering that the art show context was sufficient to differentiate it from similar performances in Times Square strip clubs. One of the most powerful pieces by a black artist, noted by several reviewers, was Candace Hill Montgomery’s large, multi-panel drawing of a black man, beaten and lynched. It was framed in plexiglass and hung by chains from the ceiling, a striking juxtaposition of formal restraint and physical violence and a metaphor for racism (Deitch 63, Lippard 78). Alongside professional artists, untrained artists also participated, such as Willie (Bill) Neale who sculpted canes out of tree branches, and SAMO (soon to be better known as Jean-Michel Basquiat), whose gnomic graffiti were familiar sights on SoHo walls but here contributed an abstract canvas to the fourth floor Fashion Lounge (Goldstein 31).
Fashion Lounge, The Times Square Show. SAMO’s canvas is visible behind the shelving. (Andrea Callard Papers, MSS156, Photobinder 1A, Series 1B. The Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University.)
Arts critic Kim Levin compared the overall installation to Kurt Schwitters’ Dada Merzbau, an environmental collage the artist assembled of found materials built up on the interior walls and ceilings of his own house, which was a commentary on the encroachment of industrial detritus on life in the Weimar era. Like the Merzbau, The Times Square Show recorded present conditions: it featured “an art of plastic and rags, broken glass and garbage, celebrating squalor and urban decay…[A]rt that merged with its surroundings, melting into its sleazy Times Square context like camouflage” (Levin 88). Dada in the 1920s was nihilistic, battering aesthetic conventions and bourgeois mores by using chance and contradiction to compose nonsense poetry and collage. It was more a state of mind, an attitude of refusal, than a political critique, however. And as with Dada, any political content threatened to be lost in the visual and aural clamor of The Times Square Show. Village Voice critic Goldstein dubbed the exhibition “The First Radical Art Show of the ‘80s,” but it was really more populist than radical, so inclusive as to provide every point of view its counterpoint (31).
Art critic Lucy R. Lippard, writing in Artforum, commented incisively on the show’s political claims. She had credentials to do so as a feminist activist and former member of the Art Worker’s Coalition who had called upon museums to develop race and gender sensitive display policies and to reach out to a working class audience. “As a whole,” she wrote, “the show did successfully appeal to a fairly varied audience—locals as well as disillusioned sophisticates, cynical radicals and chic seekers. This accomplishment can’t be underestimated” (80). But Lippard was troubled by the form of the artists’ appeal. When they self-consciously identified with and imitated residents of Times Square, Lippard argued that the artists acted as colonizers, imposing their voices and perspectives on voiceless sex workers and office drones (Lippard 80). She also disparaged artists who only wanted to shock the bourgeoisie, as in the pictures of cops with guns by Colen Fitzgibbon:
Colin Fitzgibbon’s “Police with Guns” series, Babs Egan’s “Mao,” The Times Square Show. (Andrea Callard Papers, MSS156, Photobinder 1A, Series 1B. The Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University.)
“Many seem to have thought that pictures of guns, pictures of sex (actually pictures of women, since women and sex are interchangeable, right?) constitute a statement in themselves” (Lippard 81).
Given the visibility of heterosexual pornography and the sex trade in Times Square, the representation of women in the show courted controversy. Mike Robinson reproduced details of paperback bodice-ripper covers in acrylic on masonite;
Mike Robinson’s painting is in the upper right. The Times Square Show. (Andrea Callard Papers, MSS156, Photobinder 1A, Series 1B. The Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University.)
in each, a man embraces and nuzzles an ecstatic woman. These are rather arch, and reserved compared for example to Sherry and Mayer’s installation discussed above. Robinson’s point seems to be that real emotion is cheapened by the packaged, easily consumed melodrama of the romance novel, and that we knowingly succumb to the alluring fantasy thus proffered. But how does that message translate in the context of Times Square, where real sex is also packaged and consumed? Take away the male figure, and the women duplicate poses from posters advertising nude revues or centerfolds available in nearby stores. Women artists, by contrast, adopted “aggressively sexual fashions and suggestive imagery…as symbols of women’s power over men,” wrote reviewer Jeffrey Deitch (63). Lippard pointed out that feminists have critiqued images of women for years, and that pornography had sparked furious debate about whether sexually explicit pictures of women are inherently exploitative (83). She was troubled by a performance by a pair of feminist artists, women unnamed in Lippard’s account, who strapped on dildoes and assaulted an inflatable sex doll. To a viewer like Lippard who was familiar with feminist art strategies and agendas, the point was clear: the brutal penetration of the doll was a metaphor for women’s oppression. To an audience familiar with live sex shows, the point was likely lost. As with Erika Van Dam’s striptease as Chi-Chi and Robinson’s blown-up book covers, this performance borrowed the tropes by which sex becomes a commodity, and begged the question whether the new context—an alternative art show—is sufficient to establish a critical distance. In short, these examples were ambiguous when it came to their reception: for some part of the audience, they operated to arouse, just like the sources they were supposed to subvert.
Colab member John Ahearn said, “There has always been a misdirected consciousness that art belongs to a certain class or intelligence. This show proves there are no classes in art, no differentiation” (Sedgwick 21). But a diverse audience is not so simply or glibly addressed. Art historian Cécile Whiting’s interpretation of Claes Oldenburg’s Store, installed in a Bowery storefront in 1961, applies to The Times Square Show as well (which was compared to Oldenburg’s Store by several reviewers). Oldenburg mimicked the crowded displays of inexpensive, industrially-produced clothing, accessories and housewares with shelves of hand-made, unique plaster and muslin dresses, shoes, and foods. While playing on the conventions of neighborhood retailers, it attracted art mavens; his objects for sale were bargain-priced as art, but expensive as unusable clothes or food (Whiting 22-30). The Times Square Show similarly played on the distinction between art and consumer goods. The imagery—sex, money, and violence packaged as commodities—would be “familiar [to] anyone who walks the streets of New York,” wrote Jeffrey Deitch in Art in America (60). But even if the work was derived from mass-produced commodities, it was not kitsch itself: its messiness enforced a studied distance from its mass-marketed source material. Ahearn’s cast-plaster portraits of his Bronx neighbors were the same medium as religious statuary produced in multiples. But Ahearn made just two of each model, one for the sitter to take home and one for Ahearn to exhibit, and he painted them in bright, non-naturalistic colors. Their colorful surfaces demanded an aesthetic response and interpretation in addition to rendering recognizable portraits of the sculptor’s friends and acquaintances. There was a differentiation of class in play in The Times Square Show art: it was most meaningful to a viewer who was aware of the “international modern style” conventions, such as abstraction and minimalism, which artists like Ahearn deliberately flouted (Deitch 62).
While The Times Square Show artists genuinely wanted to communicate with local inhabitants, they did not neglect the patrons who could materially support them. For an audience with little disposable income, there was a gift shop where smaller versions of the art on view could be purchased for $10 or $15. Casual viewers may or may not have been attracted by Christy Rupp’s plaster rats or Becky Howland’s deformed Love Canal Potatoes (Deitch 61), but the gift shop display was designed to be unintimidating to visitors who were more used to dime stores than fine art galleries. The same philosophy guided the installation of The Times Square Show as a whole. On the exhibition walls, Lippard observed that “no list of artists appeared, most of the work wasn’t signed, and there were no nice typed labels” (Lippard 78). The status of the art on view as commodities for sale was obscured, as were the implicit claims to originality and mastery that an artist’s name designates. Eventually, however, floor plans were drawn up so that artists’ work could be identified—as much as The Times Square Show artists embraced populism, they also had professional ambitions. Colab planned a black-tie collector’s night, and sent out embossed cards for the event, held on a Tuesday when blue-chip galleries traditionally held their receptions (Goldstein 32; Lippard 86). The Times Square Show demonstrated ambivalence about entrenched art market practices with its crude art inelegantly displayed, but the artists could not afford to turn their backs on their benefactors completely.
Anxiety about “selling out” alternated with a cynical embrace of cooptation in downtown art and its venues in the 1980s. The Times Square Show enacted this conflict on a large scale, and it influenced subsequent exhibitions that were similarly fraught, notably New York/New Wave at P.S. 1 in February 1981 where commercial artists whose work was made for mechanical reproduction showed alongside aspiring painters who produced one-of-a-kinds. Fashion Moda in the South Bronx devised successful strategies for engaging a non-specialist audience from its inception in 1978, when the inaugural show included “collections from the South Bronx,” objects donated for display by neighborhood residents. Co-directors Stefan Eins and Joe Lewis participated in The Times Square Show. Fashion Moda showed genuinely vernacular art: They organized a South Bronx Show every summer that featured neighborhood artists. They also presented paintings by graffiti writers who made their artistic reputations on the sides of subway cars. Subway writer CRASH’s exhibition Graffiti Art Success for America was mounted at Fashion Moda in October 1980 and initiated the graffiti art movement that flourished until 1983. The Lower East Side was peppered with galleries by the mid-1980s, casual artist-run spaces that at least at first were more interested in exhibiting friends’ art than turning a profit. Yet critics nevertheless took note of limousines idling outside, and shows where every work was sold. Race, class, and gender were issues that artists grappled with in the 1980s, implicating themselves and their audiences in those hegemonies. The Times Square Show was the first spectacular iteration of a decade-long interrogation of art in an urban, late capitalist society.
Committee for the Real Estate Show. “History: The Real Estate Show Manifesto or Statement of Intent.” ABC No Rio. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 August 2009.
Deitch, Jeffrey. “Report from Times Square.” Art in America September 1980: 58-63.
Ehrlich, Dimitri and Gregor Ehrlich. “Graffiti in Its Own Words.” New York 10 July 2006: n. pag. Web. 4 March 2009.
Eliot, Marc. Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World. New York: Warner Books, 2001.
Goldstein, Richard. “The First Radical Art Show of the '80s.” Village Voice 16 June 1980: 1, 31-2.
Levin, Kim. “The Times Square Show.” Arts September 1980: 87-90.
Lippard, Lucy R. “Sex and Death and Shock and Schlock: A Long Review of ‘The Times Square Show’ by Anne Ominous.” Post-modern Perspectives: Issues in Contemporary Art. Ed. Howard Risatti. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990. 77-86.
Sedgwick, Susana. “Times Square Show.” East Village Eye Summer 1980: 21.
Whiting, Cécile. A Taste for Pop: Pop Art, Gender, and Consumer Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
(c)Margo Thompson 2010