Essays

A Personal Tribute to Richard Timperio, a Beloved Figure of the Brooklyn Art Scene

Rich never forgot his roots deep in our community, and never lost his love and care for the artists.

Richard Timperio (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

We build our lives like chains — people and places are valuable nuggets we acquire over the years. Day by day, with our tiny hammers, we forge these lumps into links, the links into lines, and the lines into loops. These loops might constrain us, but they also give us stability, comfort, and, like a bike chain, they keep us in gear with the world, their strength allowing us to pedal on.

Richard Timperio, or as I knew him, Rich, died on Sunday at the age of 71. He was a nugget I happened to serendipitously stumble upon in the late 1990s in Williamsburg. I was coming out of a self-imposed exile from the New York art world, looking to reengage after spending a decade raising babies and being a soccer dad. I’d had several one-man shows in Soho and had dabbled in the East Village but never thought Brooklyn would have a scene that the New York art establishment would take “seriously.” Part of my agenda for reengagement was to begin by trying to write something like art criticism. One of my first assignments was to do a piece on a show in Williamsburg.

While investigating this show, I was introduced to what turned out to be the beginnings of a real art community — one that’d been formulating in the ‘burg since the art market crash of the late 1980s. In my time in New York I’d seen the rise and fall of Soho, the East Village, and the coming of Chelsea. But what I realized was happening in Williamsburg was something a little different. Living in Brooklyn, I decided to make this neighborhood my beat, to use this micro-environment as a case study in New York art history. Spaces were scrappy, many in artist’s studios or storefronts, and their hours were irregular on weekends. Popping up from the Bedford and 6th Avenue subway stop, one could visit four or five “galleries,” catch a band playing at a club, have dinner and a drink, all within a four- or five-block radius. It was chic, yet still had the romance of Brooklyn menace.

As a bike rider, my route through the ‘burg was a cruise up Bedford Avenue past Grand and Metropolitan avenues, then drift left or right, depending on my mood. In 1999, Rich opened Sideshow Gallery, and being at the base of my route, I’ve pedaled past this space for nearly 20 years now.

I met Rich just after he’d opened. He explained that he’d started curating group shows at Planet Thailand but once the bug bit, he decided to avoid the conflicts of working for someone else and start his own venue in a building he’d acquired.

The name “Sideshow” says something about his vision. First, most shows were two-person affairs (side by side, all the better to contrast or show points of mutual interest); and, second, here you’d get a chance to see things that had been marginalized or pushed out the spotlight by the “establishment mainstream.”

Being a Westerner and former hippy myself, I felt an instant kinship with this longhair. We also shared a teenage romance with California Hot Rod culture and rock ‘n’ roll (he was a hardcore Bob Dylan fan). Critiquing a painting for Rich wasn’t an academic exercise in jargon or Frankfurt School “critical theory,” but more like hanging out at your buddy’s garage, commenting on the tune-up of a 69 Camaro SS, or rebuilding a four-barrel carburetor. This means really getting into the nuts and bolts of painting, its philosophy and history, while sipping a beer. Don’t get me wrong, Rich had a great eye, and a very sensitive, intuitive understanding of art, but there was a hands-on Midwestern unpretentiousness in his attitude (he grew up in Ohio), and an ability to speak a common language that was disarming.

As the millennium turns, Williamsburg feels growing pains. At one point during its “golden age” there were approximately 60 galleries open in and around the neighborhood. Some artists and gallerists (including Rich) were getting recognition from the likes of the New York Times, Art in America, and local museums. The area was featured in many lifestyle and fashion magazines, and as a backdrop for movies and TV shows. With this influx of interest, there was also a flight to Chelsea. Some dealers who’d been using the ‘burg as a steppingstone decided it was time to cash in their “cultural capital” and decamp to greener pastures before the Williamsburg bubble burst. Not Rich.

By this point, Rich and Sideshow became one of the standard bearers of the Brooklyn scene. He’d earned a reputation as a serious supporter of local and international artists, with a commitment to mature painters whose careers might have been sidetracked, and younger artists who couldn’t seem to leverage their way into the ultra-competitive, ultra-commercial network of Chelsea. The gallery has hosted poetry readings, musical performances, University MFA Theses exhibitions, panel discussions, and artists’ memorial ceremonies. Many well-appreciated artists who’ve recently moved into “big-time” galleries like Chris Martin, Kathy Bradford, Thornton Willis, Margrit Lewczuk, and James Little got important boosts, at critical times, from Rich.

If there’s one thing that’s touched literally hundreds of artists, and exemplifies Richard Timperio and his Sideshow vision, it would be his Christmas/New Year exhibitions. This affair started in the early oughts as a simple holiday group show, a chance for a couple of dozen friends to present new work. The first was such a success that Rich repeated it the next year with a slightly expanded roster. Word spread, and by year three this project took on a life of its own, with over 100 contributors. As this event morphed over the next decade and a half, it became a yearly example of Rich’s generosity. Its titles highlight Rich’s poetic, hippy humor: Sideshow Nation, It’s All Good: Apocalypse Now, Peace, War Is Over, and War is Over Again. Though the show was supposedly tightly curated, Rich always had a soft spot for artists, especially ones who’d been shut out, so the list of artists kept getting longer and longer. I gasp to think that when I asked Rich about the number for the 2018 version he giggled and said, “about 580.” Of course, Rich couldn’t do this alone; I’d pop in and marvel at the team he’d put together, their system and protocols. He cherished his role as impresario, Trail Boss, and Papa Bear. The installation itself was a marathon performance lasting weeks.

Although Rich sacrificed his time and efforts in promoting other artists, he was a committed and accomplished painter in his own right. His recent works were near Color Field pieces, depicting bars and wedges of brilliant, stained pigment with overlaid circles and warped ovals. Their direct, “one-shot” approach to application and materials, and the employment of natural forces like gravity and absorption reflect his own unmediated response to the world. The Janet Kurnatowski Gallery presented a solo show of his work poignantly titled Color Me Gone in 2013.

Finally, an anecdote that highlights Rich’s almost crazy love, passion, and sacrifice for our community. One Sunday afternoon, a couple of years ago, I stopped in for a chat. The conversation turned (as it often does) to gentrification and rising rents in the ‘burg. Rich grabbed me by the arm and led me outside. Pointing across Bedford Avenue to a new bodega he said, “They’re paying $24,000.” Naively, I thought that was a year’s rent. “No, that’s just one month, and they have about half the space I’ve got.” I did a quick calculation in my head and said, “Jesus Rich, in four years you’d make something like 1.2 million bucks, and you wouldn’t have to deal with all these crazy artists!” He looked at me, with impish eyes, and let out his great laugh and just nodded.

He never rented out to a boutique, never left looking for a more commercially viable location, never closed his door to a curious passerby, never forgot his roots deep in our community, and never lost his love and care for the artists. He was a last heroic holdout in a ‘burg that doesn’t exist any longer.

A link in my chain has broken. Painfully, I’ll make repairs and attempt to pedal through my city with a smaller looped chain. And, as I head up Bedford Avenue, I’ll still be hoping to hear that laugh.

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