Patti Astor talks about her new book and her role in the New York art scene of the 1980s.
In 1980, on a lark, Patti Astor and Bill Stelling opened FUN Gallery in the then “undiscovered” East Village. It was meant to be an outlet from the pomp of the ivory (shall we say, white) tower art world that had until then covered its eyes and ears to what was happening on the street.
“To the street!” That was Patti’s battle cry. Whether marching for civil rights, tapping out a performance on Union Street, or crawling through Central Park as Snake Woman for a Tina L’Hotsky film, she was where the action was. Where it wasn’t, she created and became the action. So when this activist/actress applied her skillz to making a gallery, a change had truly come. The FUN Gallery gave minorities and unrecognized artists the chance to cover the walls and floor freely. FUN Gallery can be credited in part for the east coast hip-hop explosion of the ’80s, especially where graffiti is concerned. Patti Astor’s first book FUN Gallery: The True Story, tells all—and, if you know Patti, she tells it like it is! So put on your Converse and get ready for a journey through the beatbox-blasting, Krylon-scented streets of downtown past.
Richard Goldstein How’s everything in California?
Patti Astor It’s good, it’s good. I moved since we last spoke, I actually did an art deal (gasp) and made some money. Finally. I was able to move down to my dream home Hermosa Beach, and I’m in this little kind of ’60s surfer trailer park. It’s awesome. It’s been very, very good for me. I’ve done a lot of stuff since I’ve been here. My dream was always to be here in Hermosa Beach. It’s one of the last small beach towns left. There’s no big hotel on the waterfront. It’s just a cool, small town. There’re no hipsters.
RG Very cool. It’s like the country. Did you write the book there, at the park?
PA I did, but I’ve been writing the book for 30 years. Actually, by the time I got to the trailer park the text was pretty much done, over the summer, and that’s when I started moving. I did not want to be in Los Angeles anymore. I started looking in Long Beach . . . I was able to guest curate a show at Shepard Fairey’s gallery, that 3 Kings show. I made a little money out of that. So I just sublet in Long Beach, which was pretty cool. That’s Snoop Dogg’s town. So it was this great 1930s sublet apartment for just 450 dollars, and I was able to rewrite the book there during that month. When I was doing Art in the Streets, I was homeless. I slept on my assistant’s couch for eight months. I made it on hardly anything. What was absolute hell was doing all of the pictures and the composition of the book in this little trailer. Oh my god. But that stage is over.
RG The images are such cool components of the book because they tell so much of the story—they take you on that trip. I bet you just have boxes of photographs and everything, right?
PA Yes. It was not very well organized. I had interns coming in and working, and everything was just really disorganized. There’s a lot more out there. I like the very clean look my designer Andrew Gauld gave to the book because people were saying, Oh, you know it’s graffiti so you have to have little decorations over all of the pages and this and that. The pictures stand for themselves. Self-publishing has been a real nightmare, but the book is ready to have a happy ending.
RG Are you working on any other books now?
PA (laughter) No!
RG Okay, okay. I thought maybe you were on a roll.
PA I still don’t have the final edition of this in my hands! I mean, not even. But I have ideas for other books, yes. Everybody told me, “Oh you can’t self publish; it will never work out.” And you know how that made me feel! (laughter) I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do it just to show you!” I went digital, print on demand. That technology has gotten so great that really I was able to have all those pictures in the book, whereas 20 years ago I never would have had the chance—it would have been too expensive.
I’ve been reconnecting with a lot of homeboys, (laughter) my, like, homeboy fans across the globe, who I meet on Facebook. There is such a great culture of hip-hop out there. It’s huge!
RG Friends from your scene or a new generation?
PA Well the friends from the scene, we’re all still close. I email Crash on a frequent basis and Fab and I are always together. I just did the big show with Lee, Fab 5, and Futura, and I’m in touch with all the Wild Style guys. Wild Style is having it’s 30th anniversary next year—so that’s going to be huge. The fascinating thing is there’s this huge group of beat boys and beat girls who were around ten years old when Wild Style came out. Now they are all in their thirties and forties and are fanatical about keeping the old school, true school hip-hop alive.
RG Well, they grew up with it. It was like their Bible, I guess.
PA I thought about this with the book, thinking of books you read in school. You know, not to compare myself as a writer to Jack Kerouac, but hey—everybody used to have a copy of On the Road in their backpack. I want my book to be something that could be like that.
RG And you took that path; you were making your own way. I love how you called it the “true story.” Was it your mission to set straight all the mythologizing of the ’80s. Was there any weight that was lifted for you? What did it feel like to finally get it in print?
PA “True story” is a tongue in cheek reference to the movie magazines of the ’50s. I read every single one of those big ’50s movie stars’ biographies to prepare for this, and I looked at all the covers and everything . . . Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward and Marilyn Monroe has a great one. I told my designer and editor, “let’s keep that atmosphere alive, let’s not make this a boring art book.”
I think that one of my talents, and one of the reasons I got the respect that I got from artists, is that I tell it straight. I don’t owe anybody anything. And the other thing, too, and this is true, something that I always keep in mind with all my friends and most particularly with my gallery artists—so many of them are gone—I promised these guys that I would do my best for them. Just because they are gone doesn’t mean that I am not still here to make sure that they are treated with respect, and get the exposure that they deserve.
RG That’s something I am very sensitive to, their absence. I see them as my teachers. Not having them around, I feel my generation has a responsibility to be present through our work—and even our lives—to younger artists. Our work is our story.
RG Just a random aside about the different stories I heard, one was a little different from how you told it. It was about Elaine Dannheisser. She was at the gallery once, and she stormed out and slammed the door. That’s how the ceiling fell, right, not because of the rain?
PA I never heard that Dannheisser story. Shit, I would’ve put it in the book. That’s not bad! You have to realize, in those East Village tenement apartments nothing ever got fixed. So the plumbing would leak in the plaster ceilings, which would keep getting soaked and soaked until the whole thing would crash.
Of course, we really never paid any rent either so, hey, it’s a trade off. (laughter) What do you want for $65 a month that you don’t even have to pay? The funny part was the little collector who did the broad jump over the cement when it fell. (laughter) She was so freaked out.
RG You likened the gallery to all the neighborhood bodegas and cheeba shops. What was the East Village like when you got there?
PA Well, I moved to the East Village very early on, the end of ’75. At that time Eric Mitchell and I were mostly going to Lee Strasburg’s acting school . . . sort of (laughter). People just said, “Okay, goodbye, we’ll never see you again because we’re not coming over there and you’re going to get killed.” And we were like, “Okay, fine.” Our rent was $125, so we were so willing to take that chance and actually it was cool when you got over there. We were on 10th and 2nd, that was considered a dangerous neighborhood.
RG Right, that was like, what did they call it . . . The Panic in Needle Park?
PA That was a little farther over, but, yeah. Forget going to Alphabet City, no. You didn’t do that unless you were strung out on heroin and you didn’t care. Actually, there were the little Russian and Dominican communities and that old school Italian community that was incredible. It was kind of like a country town at that time. (laughter)
RG What do you think the biggest success of the gallery was? And the greatest obstacle to success?
PA After I met Amos Poe at CBGBs, I started acting in movies for him in ’76. We would go down to the SoHo art openings and see if we could spot the Warhol stars. That’s how we met René Ricard! It was white wine, white walls, white people; the art world was closed off and boring. The success of the FUN Gallery was to open up the art world to everybody. Both my partner Bill Stelling and I are very proud of that.
RG I love that. I love how it was so open kids would even bring their sketchbooks to show you their tags—and you had the pumpkin carving with Schnabel and Basquiat, which is one of my favorite stories. It had such a community base and such generosity. What was the hardest part?
PA Well, the hardest part of it was the flip side of the coin: the art world was very racist. Things were different where black or Latin artists were concerned. That was an obstacle. It led to some people not being treated as well or as fairly as they should have been.
RG Having the full scope of your life from the book now, what I found so interesting about you was how the street played an important role in every aspect of your life: from the activism to the Diamond as Big as the Ritz sidewalk tap performance, and even when you were doing Snake Woman in Central Park.
PA I guess growing up in the kind of working class, on-the-edge-of-development suburbs had an impact. From age five to 13 or so, we were always outside running around. We would go for miles on our bikes, and there would be these woods where the place hadn’t been developed yet. It is hooked up to the activism; that was the big thing. I mean, my first demonstration was the Nixon election in ’68. The slogan was “Vote with Your Feet, Vote in the Streets.” I got arrested. Once you’ve run wild in the streets of New York City, there’s just no turning back!
RG Even as a gallerist I feel like you were an advocate. As you said earlier, you feel like you still have this responsibility to represent those artists of yours who passed away. That courage is something that you bring to everything—that kind of energy or awareness. Did all the artists have studios, or were some of them working purely in the street?
PA It gives me a laugh to remember . . . Kenny and Keith started out with their studios at SVA and then they both moved to apartments. People set up little studios in their apartments. This is even true with the films; someone asked me, “what was it like doing Snake Woman?” I told him there was never any separation between our lives and our art. It was just one big ongoing creative maelstrom. People didn’t sit alone in their studio and paint something, and then ask somebody to come over and look at it (laughter). It didn’t work like that!
RG It’s a comedy of manners now, I guess.
PA I mean, at that point some people couldn’t even afford canvases. The graffiti guys didn’t even know how to paint on canvas. They and a lot of other artists started out by buying those readymade canvases that were cheaper. A lot of what was going on were the temporary events like the Black Light Art show. That was all on paper. Everybody would say, “Let’s just do this.”
RG There was no pretense at all.
PA When we got what you might call “successful,” people would come in, take out their slides, and have this whole ridiculous explanation of what we were supposed to think about their artwork. I would say immediately, “Well there’s not going to be any slides here, we don’t look at slides.” And people would give me attitude! I would just tell them, “You know what, this is the FUN Gallery, you go out and do something, you go out and show me something, then I’ll look at your artwork.”
RG How did you find your artists, really? How did you develop your roster?
PA They were all people that I had met. The whole thing kind of came out of Keith and Kenny moving to the East Village and then Fab 5 came down and brought the whole hip-hop element. It was still a small scene; we would just go to everybody’s clubs or lofts or whatever, just run around and do stuff, like, 24 hours a day. Bill and I picked up the people we thought were good.
RG Did you find that when you left New York for LA, the film world was changing as much as the art world? ’Cause you were going back to work on film projects, right?
PA I’m just not a commercial type, so I wasn’t that eager to start trying out for beer commercials because they would have never hired me anyway. What I ended up doing out here was more of the same. I did two independent films with Anita Rosenberg. She also shot a majority of the photographs in the book. We’ve been working together for 30 years. We did Get Tux’d, which featured Ice-T in one of his first acting rolls—I knew him from back in the day. Then, we did our masterpiece Assault of the Killer Bimbos. I ask you, isn’t that enough of a Hollywood career for you? (laughter)
RG It’s fabulous! Did you want to write for film?
PA Yes, I wanted to develop my own projects. I wrote the script with Anita for Get Tux’d and I wrote the story for Assault of the Killer Bimbos. I was a producer on all those movies as well. Then that kind of wasn’t happening and I kept working on the book.
RG What are some of your favorite anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book? Or maybe just your favorite things that are in there anyway.
PA Yeah, I have to laugh because I did an interview with a reporter from Marie Claire Greece. So she says, like, “Well, tell me, um, listen, um, can you just tell me something about Jean-Michel that you didn’t put in the book?” I laughed and I said, “Listen, if I didn’t put it in the book I’m certainly not going to tell it to you, okay?” (laughter)
RG That’s true. Touché.
PA One story that I really like is the Zephyr story—the one where the guy with the pitbull comes crashing in during the show. Okay, you want to see someone crash through a door forget about Elaine Dannheisser! Local tough SK knew how to crash through a freakin’ door. He was all up on PCP and he had a pitbull with him and they were both in head to toe black leather with studs and they started attacking us.
RG Just to finish up, what do you think about the political situation now? I was wondering if you had any advice from your early activist days for younger people or anybody—really it doesn’t matter what age—about speaking out and organizing.
PA First of all, thank goodness Obama won. That was a bit of a cliff hanger! I do see signs of activism. I think that politicians like Mitt Romney want to make you feel powerless. Many people can fall into that feeling. It’s not like it was when the apartments were $65 a month; things are a lot harder now. But one thing that’s good about the Internet is that it is bringing a lot of different people together. Once you realize that other people’s stories are the same as yours . . . I am encouraged by the Occupy Movement. I love it. Hey, rush the barricades first, then you can get more organized later. They need to take a little more responsibility, but the fact that they are stirring it up is great. It’s encouraging to me and I also see a lot of people online who are doing the FUN Gallery type of thing, where they’re not going to ask some big, rich gallery owner in Beverly Hills if their artwork is good enough. They’re making it themselves and making their own platforms—that is very encouraging.
RG That kind of answers one of the questions about there being two diseases in the art world of the ’80s. There was AIDS and then the celebrity, and the drugs that came with celebrity, that also destroyed a lot of people. How do you feel the art world has changed in terms of its focus on fame? I guess what you were just saying now about knowing you are worth your work, and knowing you don’t need people to make you something bigger than you are . . .
PA Right, it’s better if you make yourself something bigger than you are. (laughter) Don’t leave it up to other people is what I am saying!
RG There is a self-worth in what you were just talking about. Perhaps it has changed for the better because of how people, like you said, are making their own platforms.
PA What seems lost right now is the “real” art world—you know, the real commercial art world. I don’t even know what these people are doing. This Damien Hirst stuff. That’s, like, crazy! And now I’m getting a banner ad on my email, I can’t get rid of it, “Larry Gagosian owns 12 galleries!”
RG Yes, I have that too!
PA You know, the Art in the Streets show was a great museum experience, it really was. And then they dump us, the Brooklyn Museum dumps us for what was a very safe show by Keith. Don’t get me wrong, but I just don’t pay attention to the formal art world. I really don’t. It bores me and I don’t have anything to do with it. Maybe, I’ll look at the auctions. You know Futura, Daze II, and Rammell just had good shows in New York and there’s stuff going on. But in terms of the real formal art world . . .
RG It will be interesting to see what happens. Mary-Ann was talking the other day about how with Sandy and everything she thinks a lot of the galleries, the bigger Chelsea galleries, may move to Brooklyn. That would be an interesting shift.
PA Right, yeah I know I saw that.
RG Well, we’ll see how the scene changes.
PA Well I won’t, because I don’t go to Brooklyn. (laughter)
FUN Gallery: The True Story can be ordered from the publisher’s website.
Richard J. Goldstein is BOMB’s Archive Editor and a painter.