The following is a reprint of Lucy Lippard's essay for Seven Days,
The liveliest events in the art world always happen when artists take things into their own hands. This is happening more often now than it did in the 1970s. A unique example in New York is a "cultural concept" called Fashion Moda in the South Bronx. This is the hopeful and angry product of a spreading art world crisis of faith, and may have marked the beginning of a new and non-condescending meeting of art with social concern.
The fires of the late '60s sparked a number of artist-run "alternate
spaces," co-op galleries, and underground publications. Some of them
survived the cooled-out '70s by becoming as institutionalized as the institutions
they resisted; others folded when artist organizers burnt out and retreated
to their studios; others still maintain a degree of independence from art
world bureaucratics by not biting the hand that feed them. Despite all this
activity, young artists arriving in the Big Apple by the end of the '70s
found it full of worms. The careerists, of course, go at it as they always
have, and the ones who care only for art stay in their studios waiting for
fate to agree with them. But more and more idealist/activist types are muttering
on the street corners. They're artists. They make art. But what are they
supposed to do with it?
These younger artists tend to be downright disillusioned with the way the art distribution system works (in and out of so-called alternatives), demoralized by high rents and inflation, disinclined to become as apolitical as is fashionable in the "high art world" while equally uninterested in the earnest theorizing that has been passing for "political art" in New York. Some fifty such artists have not been sitting around and complaining, or indulging in the infantile sensationalism that undermines the vitality of the New Wave arts. Instead, they organized-loosely organized, but organized nonetheless. Often working anonymously and collaboratively-calling themselves Collaborative Projects Inc., or Co-Lab for short-they have put together a series of rough little open and issue-oriented shows in temporary spaces: "The Dog Show," "The Money Show," "The Doctors and Dentists Show," "The Manifesto Show," and two TV shows: "Red Curtain and "Potato Wolf."
The most recent effort along these lines-"The Real Estate Show"-opened
on New Year's Eve as a unique combination of art exhibition and guerrilla
action. A group of downtown artists simply broke in and took over a derelict
city-owned storefront right on teeming Delancey Street on the Lower East
Side of Manhattan, turned on the heat and light (also "extralegally"),
and filled the space with art protesting absentee landlordism, eviction,
developers, the city's waste of space, greed-the whole notion of property
in a capitalist society. The show was dedicated to Elizabeth Mangum-"a
middle-aged Black American killed by police and marshals as she resisted
eviction in Flatbush last year."
I don't want to "review" this show so much as to cheer its existence and that of future such events, as well as the related posters and publications emerging from the same group. Suffice it to say that in what has come to be a recognizably chaotic installation-the artists filled their captive space with a vital, if uneven, mess of art, including wall drawings and graffiti by neighborhood kids as well as artists' drawings simulating that same harsh directness, a "process piece" of crumpled cigarette packs presumably found in the gutters, a series of color advertisements of classy real estate with ironic suggestions about what could and couldn't go on inside these places, and a lot of raucous New Wave word-and-image stuff that ranged from sizzling social denunciation to easy anarchism and ambiguity. The walls were not white or clean. The lights were not bright. The audience was not all white. The back door was the safest entrance. The Museum of Modern Art it was not. You could tell be the excitement.
The city's Housing, Preservation and Development Department closed down
"The Real Estate Show" a day or so after it opened, but compromised
by not arresting anybody and offering the artists other, less desirable,
and less public spaces, which they have since used sporadically for video
and performance. During the negotiations, famous artist Josef Beuys even
showed up, and the group also met with local organizations protesting the
dismemberment of their neighborhood.
A "Real Estate Show" broadside stating the oppression of artists and expressing solidarity with the Third World mitigated its '60s sound by ending: "It is Important to Have Fun. It is Important to Learn." This is another generation. Ten years later, the hostility is more up front and the idealism is more laid back. A classic statement (by Iggy Pop) of the ambivalence toward politics and middle-class motivation was quoted in the February Artforum by Edit de Ak, founder of the proto-New Wave magazine Art Rite: "A good product has the ability to set forth true and false propositions. If someone comes on with only what's true, it's very boring, because nobody has that much truth in them."
One of "The Real Estate Show's" several Xeroxed handouts stressed the importance of bridging "the gap between artists and working people by putting art on a boulevard level." In a storefront on Third Avenue in the South Bronx, Stefan Eins has been calmly doing just that for over a year. Fashion Moda (the logo is in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Russian) is an essentially indefinable place, though Eins has called it "a cultural concept" and even a "museum." It was based on a Duchampian/populist mix of art and science that has nothing to do with what comes out of MIT. The opening show offered, bilingually, "Miracles of Science, Technology and Nature." All of Fashion Moda's shows feature art and what might not be called art by those who think they know: children's work, toys, puzzles, inventions, painted signs, manufactured objects, live animals, and you-name-it.
Fashion Moda is inventive, subjective, and people-oriented, devoted to communication between two cultures that rarely understand each other. Only an artist could have come up with Fashion Moda and made it work. Eins is a kind of matchmaker, the artist as synthesizer. An ex-Austrian, in New York since 1967, Eins operated his own downtown storefront space from 1971 to 1978 at 3 Mercer Street, where he hoped to make a place that connected with the hardware, secondhand-goods scene on Canal Street. Having gotten sick of the door-to-door self-salesmanship demanded of an artist in the art world, he showed his own inventions and other "applied physics" and sold them cheap to anybody off the street. Eventually his friends started to show, too, and 3 Mercer became an unconventional art space rather than the every man's land its founder had originally envisaged.
In 1978 Eins closed up shop to find a more challenging field than the by-then-fully-colonized SoHo. He prowled the streets of the South Bronx until he found a large, airy storefront-or what was left of one-and on his own time and money began to renovate it. Gradually he made friends in the neighborhood who helped and also protected the space (the whole front is a plate glass window). Fashion Moda acquired a codirector-Black artist, poet, musician Joe Lewis-and a participatory constituency that is split between South Bronx artists and residents and friends from the Co-Lab/Lower East Side/Tribeca contingent looking for an audience that is loose, enthused, and not art-world-weary. Although still struggling, Fashions Moda now receives funding from various state and private agencies.
Fashion Moda is indeed, as Eins claimed, "something essentially new and different." It was defined neither by art nor by do-goodism. Its success stems from a genuine mesh of its own interests and those of its audience, and it avoids "cultural imperialism" by respecting itself as well as its audience. Eins is interested in stretching Fashion Moda as far as it will go, even worldwide "combining a local sense with a planetary sense." Still in flux, Fashion Moda has recently initiated three new enterprises: "Institute for Appropriate Technology" directed by Jamal Mecklai toward "cultural, environmental, and economic harmoniousness;" through Joe Lewis, a proposed publication and traveling show by Ray Ross of some 500,000 slides and photos documenting New York jazz; and a project on alien intelligence with a research student from New York University.
At the core of all Fashion Moda's ideas, however, is communication. "There is no art without audience," says Eins. "The bourgeoisie, like the courts and religious hierarchies that preceded it, is structured enough to take care of its art. It remains to be seen whether this subculture will be able to do this." He is constantly aware that he had entered a "different culture, with all the conflicting behavior patterns and wrong assumptions" that lead to misunderstanding and, too often, to hatred in the city's daily class struggle. Slowly he has developed "a sense for the common denominator" that can make the connections he seeks. The governmentally funded South Bronx power structure is still not responsive to Fashion Moda and is probably threatened by its free-wheeling energy, curiosity, and class mix. Eins also made local mistakes. For instance, after announcing a meeting of South Bronx artists to which no one came, he realized "you can't do anything here at a certain hour on a certain day." The next show-SOuth BROnx ART, PROJECTS, OTHERS"-had four different openings.
The show itself indicates how much Eins has learned since that unattended meeting. It includes downtown and uptown, South Bronx and Lower Manhattan art, but it was hard to tell which is which. There are "paintings in blood" by "Satanic Sisters Jacquelyn and Carole" (a lavender room environment with symbols, graffiti, a candle burning in a hole-in-the-wall shrine, exhortations to worship the goat and to "Live Lust Laugh Levitate"); there is Elizabeth Clark's mural project for the abandoned Elisa Clarke School nearby (a peak-roofed house shape in line and dotted line labeled "reconstruction" and drawn in blueprint form because "the blueprint means something to be done"); David Wells' inventions; Willie Neal's array of high school pastels, professional color photos of the city, and a series of painted and varnished sticks and clubs garnished with color and an occasional marble; Wally Edwards' punk expressionist painting juxtaposed with an anonymous painting of weird faces found in an abandoned building: Fidel Rodriquez' landscape design painting for a social club; and Louis Badillo's amazing, obsessively scribbled notations of religious math-diagrams for La Destruccion del Mundo incorporating Cristo Rey and El Dragon de las Estrellas. There is a huge rose spray-painted directly on the wall "after a painting on a wall at 5th Ave. and 110th St. (to scale)," and the window is occupied by Candace Hill-Montgomery's Inner City Environment-a white picket fence around a patch of real, green grass with a battered found-metal frame hanging over it.
The most popular art ever shown at Fashion Moda, which has become a kind of permanent resident, is the mascarillas by John Ahearn (white, downtown artist, twenty-nine, punk haircut, BFA from Cornell). Ahearn has cast in plaster the heads and torsos of over fifty South Bronx people flirting, grinning and joking, lively as life. They are painted in brilliant, almost realistic skin-and-clothes colors. People were constantly coming into Fashion Moda to watch him make these and to ask if he'll do them, their kids, their boyfriends. After their first showing at Fashion Moda, the masks were moved triumphantly around the corner to the Con Ed building at 149th and Courtlandt, where their wild colors and odd shapes not only transformed the bleak and shabby space but also gave the impression that Earl and Butch, Cosmic, Willy, Big City, and Sonny had liberated Con Ed with the kind of frenetic life that epitomizes the hyped Up and the low Down of the South Bronx.
For the current show, some of these masks are now back at Fashion Moda, and they have, in the meantime, propagated. Hung next to Ahearn's heads were two others by Rigoberto Torres. Although the technique is the same, there are esthetic differences that come from culture rather than skill. And across the room are some wooden shelves with another exhibit-the painted and unpainted plaster "Hispanic statuary" mass- produced by the Fabrica del Carmen. Dimestore art, folk art, or "real art," there is no question of these statues' formal power, especially in three of them: a matte, air-brushed bust of an impassive Jose Gregorio Hernandez Cisnero; a white hand with a saint on the tip of each extended finger within a bulbous white cloud; and a small, flesh-surrounded glass eye in an ornate gold frame.
The conceptual triangle formed by these three groups-Ahearn's, Torres' and the "Hispanic statuary"-make one of the points Fashion Moda exists for, illuminating three arts and two cultures in open communication.