Interviews

Why Are We Revisiting the Times Square Show?

by Emily Colucci on October 12, 2012

Photo of the “Times Square Show” by Terise Slotkin, June 1980 (©Terise Slotkin Photography)

Thirty-two years after being labeled the “first radical art show of the ’80s,” the Times Square Show, a raucous and revolutionary DIY art exhibition held in an abandoned massage parlor on 41st Street and Seventh Avenue in the old dirty and devastated Times Square, has been revived by the Hunter College Art Galleries in the exhibition Times Square Show Revisited.

The Times Square Show was organized by Collaborative Projects, otherwise known as Colab, a group of artists known for their themed exhibitions such as the Manifesto Show and the Real Estate Show, which led to the opening of the still-standing (for now) ABC No Rio. The Times Square Show featured a roster of over 100 artists that reads like a who’s who of the art world, from Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, and David Hammons to graffiti writers Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy.

Deftly blending documentary photographs, original artworks, videos, and recreated wallpaper by Coleen Fitzgibbon and Robin Winters that was plastered throughout the Times Square Show, Times Square Show Revisited joins an ever-increasing number of exhibitions on art and alternative spaces in New York during the late 1970s to 1980s, such as the recently opened Come Closer: Art Around the Bowery, 1969-1989 at the New Museum and Exit Art’s exhibition and recent publication Alternative Histories.

John Ahearn and Tom Otterness, “Times Square Show Floor Plans” (1980), ink on paper (courtesy of the Hunter College Art Galleries)

By transforming the Hunter College Art Galleries into an in-depth time capsule of the Times Square Show, the exhibition raises a number of questions about the memory of the Times Square Show, its significance today as an artist-organized exhibition and pop-up space, and why it is being revived now.

I spoke to several of the artists who were originally involved in the Times Square Show, as well as Times Square Show Revisited curator Shawna Cooper, on the inspiration of New York in 1980, the artists’ view of the exhibition then and now, and the connection between the Times Square Show and the art world today.

For many of the artists involved, the burned-out, nearly bankrupt and destroyed New York of 1980 was the inspiration and the impetus for the Times Square Show. Back then, Times Square was almost the complete opposite of the glass condo–filled site it is today (the space for the Times Square Show is now a Red Lobster restaurant), and artists and other younger people were given almost free reign to create and curate as they pleased.

Jenny Holzer, “Living: Many dogs run wild in the city … ” (1981), hand painted enamel on metal sign (© 1981 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society [ARS], NY)

As artist Jane Dickson, who was the only artist to work in Times Square at the time, recalls:

There was this intense giddy energy in New York at that moment. There was a great uprising of energy from the gay baths and the gay club scene, which was really rocking. It was coming out of Stonewall and people were pushing the boundaries. Partly the baby boomers had come into our own. New York was bankrupt and nobody cared. You felt like you could do anything, people didn’t care and people didn’t notice. It was like we had taken over the playground.

Organizer of the Times Square Show and artist John Ahearn, who is known for his plaster-bust sculptures of South Bronx residents and other New Yorkers that he debuted at the Colab-connected Fashion Moda, echos:

NYC was so undervalued in the 1970s, almost “abandoned.” That gave the kids a lot of room to run around like it was our city.

John Ahearn, “Green Robert” (1979) (image courtesy Cara Perlman)

For many of the artists who participated in numerous Colab exhibitions, the Times Square Show at the time did not seem to them to be a singular, seminal moment in New York art history.

As Jane Dickson explains:

At the time, it seemed like a great thing, but I think everyone felt like, “This is really cool. What are we doing next month?” For me, I was going from the Times Square Show to doing something at Fashion Moda in September. So right away, I was starting on this next project that I wanted to be even more amazing. So it didn’t feel like this was the big one and that was it. It felt like a breathtakingly exhilarating ride. It was a fabulous convergence of energies.

Similar to Dickson, Joe Lewis, an artist, co-director of Fashion Moda, and now the Dean of University of California Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, was not thinking of the exhibition’s long-term art historical significance. Yet, like many of the participating artists, he remarked on the energy coming from the mixture of the over 100 artists who came from various backgrounds.

As Lewis remembers:

I wasn’t thinking in macro terms at the time. But what was important for me was that there was a lot of diversity in the show. So you had people in the show who you heard of, who you didn’t hear of and who you’d never hear of again. At that time, there was a very strong compliment of people of color in the show. There was the high flyers like Alex Katz. You had this very odd group of folks and that’s what I was thinking about. My goal throughout my professional career is to create that environment where those kinds of people can come together. Bringing people together who would not necessarily come together under any other circumstance. Using the vehicle of creativity as a way to transport these people into this different territory and this different space.

After 32 years, the artists of the Times Square Show have had more time and distance to reflect on the exhibition and its major contributions to art history. In addition to introducing the art world to a new host of artists, many of whom are still actively working today, the Times Square Show represented a moment where the ideas of the artists involved with Colab reached its peak.

Artist, Colab member, art historian, and author of Art Gangs: Protest and Counter Culture in New York City, which focuses on Colab and the Times Square Show, Alan W. Moore offers this analysis:

The Times Square Show was preceded by a number of other exhibitions and a number of other projects by artists which were all directed towards putting art on the boulevards. Not only art on the boulevards, but also, artists. John Fekner made a great stencil: Danger Live Artists. The idea was to put artists, their art and their living and working practice on the boulevards. That’s what the Real Estate Show was about, ABC No Rio, Fashion Moda and Christy Rupp’s ‘Animals Living In Cities’ project. The Times Square Show was its culmination.

Installation view of “Times Square Show Revisited” with Kiki Smith, “Severed Limbs” (1979–80), which was Smith’s first artwork she ever sold, and Coleen Fitzgibbon and Robin Winters, “Gun Money Plate” (1978) (photo © Louis Chan)

After the Times Square Show, the thoroughly for-profit galleries in the East Village began their takeover of the art world during the early ’80s, and they would bring many of the artists from the Times Square Show with them.

Joe Lewis reflects:

In retrospect, I think what was really important about that show is it was a moment in time where things started to diverge because right after that show, the dealers came and they kind of cherry picked people they thought they could make money with. There was a group of die-hard Marxist/Leninist/manifesto-ists who were still within the art community manning the barricades. And there were those who just continued to plod along. A few years after, that group was in a lot of different places. I think that was kind of the end of it. It was the beginning of other things.

Discovering the Times Square Show through her interest in artist-run spaces, Times Square Show Revisited curator Shawna Cooper, who also wrote her graduate thesis on the Times Square Show, found that she was the first to focus completely on the seminal exhibition. Much interest in these artist-curated exhibitions had waned in the years after the East Village gallery boom of the 1980s, and yet now, starting with the Grey Art Gallery’s The Downtown Show in 2006, there have been countless exhibitions and publications about this seminal period of creativity in New York.

The major question raised by Times Square Revisited is: Why now? Why has the Times Square Show suddenly reappeared into our art consciousness?

Cooper explains:

The Times Square Show also resonates now. There are certain stars contemporary to the research for the current exhibition that align politically and economically with that time. The recession that was going on in the late 1970s and the dissatisfaction with administration resonates in many ways with Occupy Wall Street, the housing crisis, and the economic trouble that continues now. Jane Dickson, an artist in our exhibition, observed very astutely that “now after a few years of really difficult times, young artists are humbled, considering starting collectives and maybe showing art in part of their loft. They consider that maybe they do have to find some backdoor way to get their art out to the world.” The idea of young artists entertaining detours rather than expecting a linear ascendancy from a top MFA program to the doors of Gagosian is quite powerful as we look back at the legacy of the Times Square Show.

And since 1980, there are many interesting examples of artists who make work that is critical of the desire to engage in the gallery system and the frenetic expectations of our socially connected world. In this context, I like to think about artists who are as different as Mark Flood and Ryan Trecartin, who have both added very particular points of view to the art ecosystem. We can also consider the development of artists playing with ideas around forming corporations and/or collective-type practices to make work; like Andrea Zittell A to Z, Bernadette Corporation, and Bruce High Quality. And of course DIY is now pervasive, which was a big part of the Times Square Show in art, fashion, film and performance.”

Times Square Show Revisited will be on view at the Hunter College Art Galleries (The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery/The Times Square Gallery, 695 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until December 8.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.eagan.7 Richard Eagan

    Whenever I sing “Sweet Jane” at my Red Hook gig, I always dedicate it to “a time in New York when there were 200 artists, 18 collectors, and 60 galleries. The Times Square Show blew my head off, especially for one who’d missed the downtown “Happenings”, etc. But my art partner (Philomena Marano) and I took inspiration from our participation in Colab’s “The Coney Island Show” the next year, to form The Coney Island Hysterical Society (see us on FB). So glad this show is available now!

  • http://www.facebook.com/snappy.mcmartin Snappy McMartin

    This evening found some slides in a box that I took at the Times Square Show in the summer of 1980. I was 24 years old. It was a pleasure to read this article as it reminded me of the energy of a time and place — along with those Kodak slides. Maybe I’ll put them on line in honor of ourselves?

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