CEDAR LEWISOHN: The
story of the FUN gallery shows how a group of kids from New York City who
started as outsiders making and showing art went on to achieve global
recognition. Patti Astor’s unconventional approach to running the
FUN Gallery is as radical now as it was back in the day. Cedar
Lewisohn caught up with underground movie star turned galleriest to find
out how a 8 x 10 storefront on East 11th street would go on to
become one of the most influential galleries in street art history.
Lewishon – Let’s start with an easy one. How did The FUN Gallery start?
Patti Astor - Well, I always say
the FUN Gallery started the day I met Fab 5 Freddy. Before the FUN Gallery, I
was an underground ‘superstar’. I’d made a film called Underground USA – sort of a punk-rock version of Sunset
actually captures that last moment of the Mudd Club; it was shot there while it
was open (we couldn’t afford to hire the club when it was closed). It ran as
the midnight movie at St. Marks Cinema for about six months, and Fab dragged
all these people down to see it. Futura  (who said he fell asleep) and
other people from uptown came to see it. Then right after that, he [Fab 5
Freddy] came up to me at this weird downtown party and introduced himself and
said, “you’re my favourite movie star, can I have your autograph...”
time, around 1980, no one had heard of rap music, hip hop, break dancing... and
we didn’t really take the train that much, so we didn’t see that many of the
paintings. Fred started taking me around to all these things; at the same time
Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf came to the East Village. I came in late ’75/
early ’76 because it was a cheap. My friends were like, “you’ll never see us
again, because we’re not going over there.” I met Keith Haring on the street.
did that happen?
PA - Keith
was just walking around. He had a little tiny camera, and DayGlo glasses that
he painted himself. He was taking pictures of everybody he thought was groovy.
He just came up to me and asked if he could take my picture. I said sure, why
not, that should be fun. We became really good friends after that.
CL - So, you met Fab 5 Freddy, and all
these artists, then you said, OK, I’m going to open a gallery space?
PA - No.
What happened was everybody started tagging all over the street, so everything
became a big bulletin board. Because the Mudd Club had had this tradition of
doing one-night parties, Keith Haring hooked up with [Mudd Club owner] Steve
Mass and did an art show called Beyond Words. Afrika Bambaataa came down to DJ and Jean-Michel [Basquiat] was in it.
Iggy Pop was in it. Alan Vega was in it. Keith was in it. Kenny was in it.
Futura was in it. All the major
CL - I think I’ve seen the flyer for that
show. It was an amazing line up.
PA - That
was when the whole downtown-met-uptown thing happened, everyone just stared
doing these one-night things. They were really not about being famous; they
were not about sales and making money. They were just to show the art... and
have a party.
Were they mainly in the Mudd Club?
PA - They
were in the Mudd Club, Club 57, Fashion Moda…
CL - Basquiat was on the scene at that
time; was he already hanging out with you guys?
PA - I met
Jean-Michel on the steps of the Mudd Club going up to the V.I.P room. I didn’t
know who he was. I just made some crack about his weird hair-do. Then later on,
at Diego Cortez’s New York, New Wave show, and when I saw his piece in the Beyond
Words show, I just
said, ‘this guy’s a genius’. You could tell right away. I have no formal art
training, but you were just like, wow! Among all these amazing pieces, you
know, Keith [Haring] too: there was just this energy that came out. First I
just thought he [Basquiat] was some guy at the Mudd Club and I was just trying
to flirt with him.
CL – Oh
Yeah? How did that go?
PA - You’re
not paying me enough for that – that’s for my book! Not too long after this,
Becky Johnston, a friend of mine, she goes, ‘Oh the guy from the Mudd Club
wants to meet you – he’s got a small space he wants to fix up as an art gallery’.
I went to meet him at 1 University and he said, “I’ve got this little studio
space on East 11th Street and I was thinking of fixing it up as an
art gallery… Do you know any artists?” So we decided to do it just as a
one-shot deal. We would become the first gallery in the East Village. There
were no galleries there.
CL - How
did the name come about?
PA - We
didn’t have a name [at first]. My ex-husband, Stephan Cramer, was the first one
to say, ‘Hey, yes, I’ll do it.’ He had 20 coloured pencil drawings – we were so
broke that we shrink-wrapped them and stuck them on the wall. They were $50 each and we sold every
single one that afternoon. We were like, ‘Hmm, OK... Maybe we have an art
gallery’. After that, everybody wanted to do the next show. Since Kenny
[Scharf] had customised all my appliances for me, I said, ‘OK Kenny, you be
CL - Had Kenny graduated at this point?
Because they were at the School of Visual Arts, right?
PA - I
think by this time they were finishing up, Jean-Michel lived there.
Lived where, at The School of Visual Arts?
that’s how Keith and Jean-Michel met. Keith had been seeing all these ‘SAMO’
tags on the streets and no one knew who it was. Then he let this young black
kid into the building one day, and the next day there was all these ‘SAMO’ tags
up in there. They became friends and Keith and Kenny let him stay in their
studios and use art supplies and so forth.
What kind of shows were happening at the time?
PA - It was
white walls, white wine and white people. There were these big boxes in Donald
Judd exhibitions. Julian Schnabel and David Salle were coming onto the scene,
doing these huge, ugly paintings that were just stupid-looking. It was all very
closed off, really boring and very elitist. So, Bill and I decided ours is
going to be the artists’ gallery and they can do whatever they want with the
space. Even name the space. So Kenny [Scharf] came up with the name: the FUN
Gallery. Fab 5 was the next show. He wanted to call it the Serious Gallery. We
said, ‘You know what, Fred, I would have to change all the stationary’. Also,
‘FUN Gallery’ was so stupid that we just went with it.
CL - So let’s talk about the music and
art crossover at the time. What was happening?
PA - When I
first came to the East Village, in 1976, punk-rock was it. I think of [that] ’76 to ’78 [period]
as CBGB’s and punk-rock – the whole DIY thing. But then, Talking Heads and
Blondie became famous. Then, we all went and started to do these ridiculous movies: I did 14 movies. Underground
USA was our most
successful, it was 16mm colour. Most of them were Super-8, and we would
transfer them to video immediately, and show them at [West Side night club]
Danceatria. It became the thing to have video cameras in the clubs. At the New
Cinema we had this huge video thingy, and we would show them on that. So, what
happened was all these bands, like The Contortions and Teenage Jesus and The
Jerks, they were all part of the scene. They were all in the movies. Then, all
the graffiti guys and Keith and Kenny and everybody else just jumped on board.
CL – Jean-Michel Basquiat was in a band
called Gray, which was part of the no wave movement. Who else was part of that?
PA - The
Contortions [led by James Chance], Teenage Jesus and The Jerks (fronted by
Lydia Lunch]... Talking Heads got too grown up for us. They actually made
records and went on concert tours and things like that.
CL - Was
there an ethos to no wave – an ideology?
PA – No!
CL - It
was just the opposite?
PA - It was
just, pick up your guitar and play; do whatever; the same way that the FUN
Gallery was ‘let’s just do it. ‘Fuck Studio 54’: we couldn’t care less. If
there was any ideology, it was just, ‘We’re going to do whatever the fuck we
CL- What about the video for Blondie’s
‘Rapture’; do you remember how that came about?
PA - That
was one of the first really influential things [in the wider dissemination of
street art and hip hop]; that and Glenn O’Brien’s [Manhattan cable television]
show, TV Party.
That was where Fab 5 met [Blondie’s] Debbie [Harry] and Chris [Stein]. Fred
made it his business to come up from Brooklyn and conquer the world.
They are all in the ‘Rapture’ video as well, right?
PA – Yeah,
LEE [aka graffiti writer Lee Quiñones] and Jean-Michel are in the background.
There are a number of people walking around. Again, that was the beginning of
Which other musicians came to the gallery?
PA - Well,
after we had our first year at the gallery, and I decided that we needed to
move to a bigger one. The limos were now coming to us; there would be a
thousand people in the street for this tiny gallery that could hold maybe 75
people. It just took off, like, boom! A small club called The Grill opened around the
corner. Everybody hung out there. David Byrne from Talking Heads would hang
out; LL Cool J played there; Rock Steady danced there. Then the Sex Pistols and
The Clash started coming around.
CL - How
did that come about? Was it through Malcolm McLaren?
PA - No, I
think he was too cool to come to this scruffy little gallery. But I know The
Buffalo Girls came down there, and the guys loved them.
Futura and The Clash later collaborated. Did that connection come though the
PA – Yeah,
it was just a very small scene; it was still a little village. The hip-hop guys
were coming down, but we also went uptown to [South Bronx gallery] Fashion
Moda. Then, to get the part in [Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 hip hop film] Wild
Style I went up to
the Harlem Armory…
you in Wild Style?
I’m the blond reporter.
CL- Oh yeah sorry, it’s been a while
since I’ve seen it. That’s right (adopts sleazy tone of voice)... Nice one...
that a great role.
I’m the blond reporter [in the film].If I never do anything else in my life,
I’ve got it made just on Wild Style. Anyway, The Clash just liked the energy in the scene. People hung out at
the FUN Gallery every day. It was a clubhouse. We had a back yard where
everybody could do their paintings.
Were you selling a lot of art at that time?
PA – No
[laughs]. We made enough to keep going. When I had the Keith Haring show, which
was great, we didn’t sell shit, except for one Smirth. All the guys wanted to
do something really experimental when they came to the gallery. I lost money on
Keith’s show. You know my best seller was Futura. He really kept us going. We
didn’t know what we were doing.
CL - So, how long did it take for the
more blue chip galleries like Tony Shafrazi and Sidney Janis to start doing
PA - Tony
was always pretty on it. Tony was often the first person to see what I was
doing. I was always like, ‘Hey,
Bill (my partner), these guys are taking the time to stab us in the back. We
must have something going here’. I gave LEE his first one-man show, and he was
gone… which was fine.
went to Tony Shafrazi?
PA - He
went to Barbara Gladstone. It was fine, we wished them well. ‘We were happy
that we were able to give you your start’, and LEE and I are very good friends
still. I gave Kenny [Scharf] his first one person show.
CL - I saw a Martha Cooper photo, where
it looks like Keith Haring has drawn over literally everything in the gallery.
PA - Yeah
that was his show at the gallery.
What happened to all the work?
PA - The
[Keith Haring] foundation has most of them. He and LA2 painted the entire
gallery with spray cans; they weren’t even using an airbrush. We were, like, so
buzzed. It was February ’83, that
show, so there was snow outside. They even painted the snow. They painted my
outfit. Keith made a thousand posters: that’s what he’s signing [in the photo],
that little group of kids that you see around him, it was like that every
happened next after you moved the gallery?
PA - We
moved from East 11th to East 10th street, to a much bigger building. Then we
became, like, world famous and we were in People Magazine. We still never made any money. I had
that great Jean-Michel show – that was November of ’82; we sold hardly
What’s the rest of the story?
PA - After
our first year in the East Village there were five gallery’s that opened. The
next year, there was, like, 40. Then, people decided there was money to be made
and started coming in and renovating tenement spaces, with hundreds of thousands
of dollars to make them look like SoHo galleries; it just started to get weird.
Then, unfortunately, the AIDS epidemic happened and everyone started getting
sick. I mean, I lost two of my artists. One of our artists, who was also a
writer, Nicolas Newfarge, died in ’83. Then it just became this horrible
avalanche. Bill was very affected by it. It kind of took the heart out of him.
He also got an offer to go to a ‘real’ gallery; they could pay him, it was a
real job. I said, ‘take it’. Then,
I had to do the last year by myself, which was hard. Also, the competition with
the other people, and I didn’t really want to be Mary Boone.
CL - Were you still working with Keith
Haring or did he have another gallery at that time?
PA - He was
always with Tony Shafrazi. But he
wanted to do the show at the FUN Gallery. I’m going to give you my first quote
on this. The Brooklyn Museum was supposed to have Art in the Streets, but, then, they went and put the
Keith Haring show in there. That’s the substitute.
CL - I
wonder why they did that?
PA - It’s
because they are racist pigs, that’s why. The Brooklyn Museum is funded from
Brooklyn. They get private donors. This was online when we first found out the
whole thing was cancelled. They got these Italian councilmen, from the city
council, who can really screw the Brooklyn museum up if they really want to. I
think they said, they didn’t want all this ‘trashy’ stuff in their museum. And
knowing Keith as I do, Keith would want everybody in there with him. He would
not have wanted what happened, to have happened.
CL - What do you think, more broadly,
about the way that graffiti and street art have entered the mainstream fine-art
world but without being fully accepted?
PA - I
think that before Jean-Michel, before Bill and I introduced artists that were
not white, upper middle-class men, you never saw a black person in a gallery,
much less selling work. It wasn’t until Jean Michel died that he sold any
paintings. America is a very racist country. Now, if they can make your money,
that’s fine and dandy. But when it really comes down to it, I think [the
racism] is still there.
CL - It seems to me that graffiti and
street art have managed to explode around the world without the museums. It’s
been Nike or MTV and the kids; that’s what’s helped that movement spread.
PA - I
think so. Something that’s interesting is that the whole hip-hop movement was
one of the first to discover the internet and really utilise that.
I want to
just go back and make it clear that the reason why the FUN Gallery was
successful, and part of our point, was that we did not set out to show graffiti
art, we picked the people that we thought were most talented; if they happened
to be graffiti artists that was fine. I had gay male artists, and that was a big
shocker, for the homeboys. Some of those graffiti art group shows, I was like,
‘I don’t know guys. You do what you want to’. When it really got big, people
would just go ‘its graffiti, its graffiti, just get it in here’. You know, it’s these people’s lives,
and they would promise them all this stuff and if it didn’t work out, then,
‘See you; bye; tough shit’. But I think that, because it is such a vibrant
culture and it’s open to everyone, that its spread without the establishment,
for want of a better word.
When did you decide to close the gallery?
PA - It was
1981 to 1985. By that time it was ridiculous; SoHo had come to the East
Village. I always say that when the St. Marks Cinema turned into a Gap, that
was it, I’m done; I’ve got to get out of here. Like I said, I was not
interested in dressing in the little suits and being a yuppie. I wanted to get
back to making movies. The whole thing was just gone. It was over. Fred and
Futura and LEE had had their first studio, Downtown on Avenue C, when it was
Alphabet City and everyone was scoring heroin (not me); they were building
million dollar condos there now. I just didn’t want to be around that. It just
didn’t interest me. I was never doing it to make money.
CL- That’s a rare attitude in the art world...
PA - I
didn’t make a dime, so I guess I nailed it.
photograph of Patti Astor and Futura 2000 courtesy of Anita Rosenberg.
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