This show at James Fuentes, instigated by various artists associated with an exhibition in 1980 called The Real Estate Show, is a reconstruction of a spontaneous action that began in late 1979. In the waning days of December, a group of artists belonging to an organization called Colab (Collaborative Projects) occupied an abandoned building, technically owned by the City, and transformed it into a makeshift gallery. It is the kind of exhibition that carries a certain political agenda and may therefore retain a heroic aspect as well, particularly when examined in retrospect.
Artists were pissed off due to the fact that rents were skyrocketing and they were being thrown out of TriBeCa and forced eastward into the Lower East Side (LES). The problem was that the spaces made available at the time in LES were not the expansive raw loft spaces, found in the late 1960s in SoHo or more recently during the 1970s in TriBeCa. Rather they were crowded rundown apartments in ill repair with small dark rooms, considered unsuitable for artists to work in the way they were accustomed.
Such ad hoc retrospectives as The Real Estate Show Revisited are often filled with external as well as internal controversies as to who gets the credit. The names I heard repeatedly in my discussions with Fuentes and his well-informed gallery staff were Becky Howland, Ann Messner, Alan Moore, Jane Dickson, Peter Moening, Robin Winters, Mike Glier, Peter Fend, Mitch Corber, John Halpern, Scott Miller, and Bobby G (Robert Goldman). As an outsider looking in, the challenge was to determine the fulcrum on which this current overview was made possible. This goes to the proprietor of the space, James Fuentes.
As a relatively new gallery in the neighborhood, Fuentes felt it was important to acknowledge an event that impacted the lives of artists in past decades. The original installation of The Real Estate Show was mounted at 125 Delancey Street in an empty building within days at the end of 1979. This concluded with a boisterous party on New Years Eve, with the official opening day on January 1, 1980. It was done without a permit, and therefore “extra-legal” action soon followed. The exhibition was closed within a couple days.
Reminiscent of Berlin in 1933 and of Cincinnati in 1989, the police barged in, threw people out, and fastened the doors shut. Naturally, this action was followed by demonstrations, vigils, confrontations, and concomitant media coverage. Even the German artist Joseph Beuys, who was in town for his Guggenheim Retrospective, came down with his dealer Ronald Feldman and entered into the proceedings. In the text that accompanies the exhibition, we learn that the original show was dedicated to an African American woman, Elizabeth Mangum, who was reportedly killed by police and marshals for resisting eviction in Flatbush the preceding year.
Most of the work in the exhibition at Fuentes is reconstructed, but there are a few original pieces still intact. For example, Mike Glier repeated his metaphoric wall mural of two sexualized figures, and John Morton rebuilt his model building out of cardboard and plastic trash bags. There is a striking photograph by Ann Messner presented as a large-scale multiple souvenir, which shows a Muslim woman in her burka walking front of the building where the original show occurred. The aura of this exhibition lingers as a realization that the struggle for artists to live and work in New York has not mitigated in all these years. The recap of The Real Estate Show at James Fuentes offers a reminder that without legislation that offers a tax incentive for landlords willing to make working space available for artists, the problems defined on Delancey Street in 1980 will continue to fester. Without a clear political agenda that acknowledges artists, how will New York survive as a major center for artists to engage in their professions?
The Real Estate Show Revisited continues at James Fuentes Gallery (55 Delancey Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 27.